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Gulf states to capitalise on World Cup tourism ‘halo’ effect

Urban, Night Life, City Reuters/Abdel Hadi Ramahi
Supporters watch a World Cup match at the BudX Fifa Fan Festival in Dubai

Qatar’s Gulf neighbours have more than a passing interest in the World Cup. When the tournament ends Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman will be looking to capture the ripple effect resulting from the surge in tourists to the region. 

For the GCC’s tourism sectors, the World Cup is viewed as a catalyst for a sustained boost in visitors. And that in turn will help them realise long-term economic development objectives.

However, much of the benefit will be felt in the near-term. While the World Cup hosts will be the main beneficiary, the impact will spill over to neighbouring countries as Qatar is physically unable to accommodate all visitors.

Gulf airlines have been savvy, striking deals with Qatar to increase the number of flights during the tournament, including match day shuttles that whisk fans in and out of the country without them having to spend a night in Doha. 

The UAE and Saudi Arabia are holding festivals to coincide with the tournament, while travel operators have established fan itineraries for those keen to explore the wider region.

Dubai stands as the biggest beneficiary. It will host some 300,000 World Cup fans, with Redseer Strategy Consultants anticipating a $500 million revenue opportunity for the emirate. 

The consultancy says the influx of tourists – and increased spending by locals keen on joining in on the excitement – will provide a $4 billion uplift to GCC spending levels as a whole. 

“The period around the tournament will definitely see a spike,” Akshay Jayaprakasan, associate partner at Redseer, told AGBI. 

Dubai will account for the majority of the tourist surplus visiting the region for the World Cup but staying outside of Qatar.

“We expect a 15-20 percent increase in hotel occupancy rates in Dubai,” said Jayaprakasan. “The familiarity of Dubai and its appeal as a tourist destination are major drivers for this. It is also the closest, which definitely is another factor.”

He added: “FlyDubai alone is operating 30 daily flights to Doha during the World Cup. Free or discounted multiple entry visas for Hayya card holders [a fan ID] have been rolled out by Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE.”

The hope is that interest will remain in the long term as visitors get a chance to experience Gulf Arab culture and engage in a host of new activities such as exploring the desert by all-terrain vehicles, camel races and sand boarding.

For those seeking a different kind of thrill Oman is looking to have the Jabal al Akhdar and Jabal Samhan Nature Reserves listed as Unesco World Heritage Sites. 

All this will give traction for a wider recognition of the GCC as an attractive tourist destination, beyond the hotel and shopping offering of Dubai. Gulf governments have been preparing for this, embedding tourism as major components in their long-term economic plans, such as Saudi Vision 2030

Just as important as the immediate boost in tourism numbers, the World Cup could play a role in busting negative preconceptions about the Gulf states. That is a takeaway that could be as significant as higher hotel occupancy rates. 

“An event like the World Cup will shine a spotlight on the region,” said Samy Musa, CEO of GulfReps, a consultancy that represents tourism boards and hotels in the region. 

“That means more people coming who might have historically been reticent to travel to the Middle East for various reasons. Those reservations will slowly start to dissipate, as people’s Instagrams fill up and the open, welcoming culture gets known.”

This offers the chance for a domino effect, building up the GCC’s credentials for hosting a wider array of sporting and cultural events.  

Expo 2020 Dubai has already seeded a greater awareness of the region as a hosting destination. And, according to analysts at Fitch Solutions, a successful Qatar World Cup could boost Saudi Arabia’s joint bid with Egypt and Greece to host the tournament in 2030 and its efforts to host the World Expo in Riyadh the same year.

The holiday halo effect goes wider than tourism. Gulf retailers will also feel the effect of the increase in consumption among residents as opposed to tourist spend. 

“We expect about 70 percent of the population in the region to engage with the World Cup, fuelling consumption of food and beverage, sports merchandise and electronics,” Jayaprakasan said.

“In our research, close to two-thirds of consumers engaging with FIFA have said that their spend across products would increase during the World Cup.”

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