Qatar World Cup to give Gulf tourism lift as neighbours tap into demand

Spillover from football tournament later this year to benefit other GCC destinations

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Gulf nations are preparing for a boom in tourism as huge numbers of football fans plan trips to watch the Qatar World Cup in November.

Qatar’s hosting of the world’s largest sporting event will lead to one of the busiest winter tourism seasons yet, particularly for Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain.

Though Doha has spent billions on hotel accommodation and infrastructure, a significant shortfall remains.

About 1.5 million visitors are expected for the month-long tournament, due to kick-off on November 21.

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The World Cup is a shop window and an ideal opportunity to show what we have to offer
Nasser Al Qaedi, Bahrain Tourism and Exhibition Authority

But with only 130,000 or so rooms provided by hotels, cruise liners anchored off Doha and desert camp sites, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia will be attractive alternative destinations for fans - though flight tickets have already surged in price.

“The UAE as a global hub will have every opportunity to capitalise on strong visitor numbers who wish to use the emirates as their base for the tournament games,” said David Garner, Mena region commercial vice president of Minor Hotels, which owns the Anantara and Avani brands.

“Demand will be generated by the 32 countries who have qualified for the World Cup but also from many other global fans.”

Travellers from most GCC nations can reach Qatar’s Hamad International Airport in about an hour or less.

Representatives from Qatar Airways, Dnata Travel, Etihad, Hilton and Bahrain's tourism authority told The National they have witnessed a surge in interest since the first phase of tickets went on sale.

Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Manama and Kuwait City are all less than an hour's flight from Doha. Graphic: Ramon Penas / The National

“There’s an expectation that many football fans heading to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will use Dubai either as a staging post or as a pre or post visit option due to Dubai’s excellent visitor options and attractions,” said Stuart Birkwood, general manager of Radisson Red Dubai in Silicon Oasis.

“With the more varied visitor activities available to football fans here in Dubai compared to Qatar we have heard that many fans will use Dubai as a base between, before or even after games they’ll attend in Qatar.”

The final draw for the group stages of the World Cup is not due until April.

But fans are already planning trips to the region as the first round of ticket applications for matches opened in January.

The tournament begins on Monday, November 21, with hosts Qatar playing in the first match at the 60,000-capacity Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor.

Group matches will run until Friday, December 2 with the first of the knockout games beginning on Saturday, December 3.

The final will be held at the 80,000-seater Lusail Stadium on Sunday, December 18.

Dubai most preferred base for fans

Dubai is likely to be the most attractive satellite base for World Cup fans — and the Emirate has capacity for more than 100,000 hotel rooms.

Booking agents at Dnata Travel said the Emirates could provide the perfect springboard for World Cup visitors to Qatar.

“Demand from travellers heading to this part of the world is anticipated to be exceptionally high in the winter months of 2022,” said Emily Jenkins, general manager of Dnata Travel Leisure.

“With demand only set to increase, we recommend that travellers book their journeys as far in advance as possible to secure their perfect trip.”

The UAE has more than 180,000 hotel rooms at its disposal for visitors, according to the latest figures from Statista’s tourism report published in November.

Muscat and Manama set to benefit

Bahrain has more than 18,000 hotel rooms to offer, while Saudi Arabia has about 600,000, according to the report.

The nine resorts and 11 five-star hotels in nearby Kuwait, could also make it a base for supporters unable to stay in Qatar.

Although slightly further away, the football-mad nation of Oman is also likely to stoke up plenty of interest from fans hoping to join the action in Qatar.

A 90-minute flight to Doha from Muscat is currently on offer for around Dh2,300 with Oman Air.

Hotel prices for the UAE remain competitively priced, but as demand increases closer to the World Cup, they are likely to rise.

In Qatar, no hotel rooms were available to book online during the tournament on several booking apps. It was not clear whether they are sold out, or whether rooms are yet to be released for booking.

“Whenever a major sporting event comes to the Middle East, it creates a huge buzz and we’re seeing a surge in interest for our properties in Qatar and across the Middle East as football fans around the world start planning their trips,” said Stijn Bastiaens, vice president and commercial director for Hilton in the Middle East, Africa and Turkey.

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We’re seeing a surge in interest for our properties in Qatar and across the Middle East as football fans around the world start planning their trips
Stijn Bastiaens, Hilton

As many airlines plan special deals for fans with connecting flights, competition for business is likely to match the intensity on the pitch as 32 teams compete for the biggest prize in sport.

Etihad Airways is among the airlines preparing to boost services into Qatar for the month-long football festival.

“Having the Fifa World Cup on our doorstep is a great boost for the region,” said Martin Drew, Etihad’s senior vice president of global sales and cargo.

Flight operators set to increase Qatar services

To support the additional demand for travel into and around the region, Etihad Airways will increase passenger services between Abu Dhabi and Doha to six daily flights from November 21 to December 18.

Meanwhile, Qatar Airways has launched complete travel packages, inclusive of match tickets, return flights and accommodation options.

To guarantee their experience, fans can choose from seven-tiered travel packages, but at $3,800 — they come at a premium price.

Many fans are likely to book their own trip and look to cut costs by staying elsewhere in the region.

Etihad has set out two-day packages for the first weekend of action, with a flight to Doha on Saturday and home to Abu Dhabi on Sunday for Dh4,765. Photo: AFP

Qatar Airways said demand on many routes, including Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah, has risen drastically for the tournament dates.

“There is already significant demand on these routes as we currently operate double-daily flights from Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, and triple-daily flights from Dubai, with high load factors,” a spokesman said.

“We continue to review our operational requirements on a regular basis, as market demand evolves, and exploring options to further boost our growing flight schedule with increased frequencies on specific routes."

Etihad is currently offering return flights to Doha on the first full weekend of action on Saturday, November 26 and returning the next day for Dh4,765.

On the same weekend, a Qatar Airways return flight from Dubai to Doha will cost around Dh5100.

The final quarter of 2020 is already a time in demand for UAE tourists, with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, HSBC Rugby Sevens in Dubai and National Day popular reasons to visit.

With a first Gulf World Cup thrown into the mix, it is likely to be a golden opportunity for tour operators and travel agents across the region to maximise revenue.

Dr Nasser Al Qaedi, chief executive of Bahrain Tourism and Exhibition Authority, said the region would be in the shop window like never before, and hopes to capitalise.

“Hotels resorts are all getting ready to welcome visitors to Bahrain during the World Cup and engaging with sporting teams who want to use the country to acclimatise to the region before those matches,” he told The National.

“It is a way to attract people to this area for the first time and take advantage of these windows of opportunity to mobilise everything so it is all in place.”

Seven new five-star hotels are due to open in Bahrain this year, to complement improved tourism attractions elsewhere, such as waterfront facilities of Bahrain Bay.

“The World Cup is a shop window and an ideal opportunity to show what we have to offer,” said Dr Al Qaedi.

“This will be a transformative year for Bahrain.

“We want to enhance our connectivity within the region to cross-fertilise traffic with Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar to benefit.”

The Gulf state’s spending spree to bring one of the most prestigious world events to a tiny country with only 3 million people has been audacious.

According to Qatar’s World Cup organising committee, about $6.5 billion was spent on building seven new stadiums, and to cover the direct costs of event hosting.

Financial experts estimate the cost of transforming Qatar’s infrastructure with improved road and rail networks to be far higher, and could top $200 billion.

Updated: February 07, 2022, 10:08 AM
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