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How Qatar is handling the world’s football fans

Person, Man, Adult Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed
Scoring Qatar's goal for tourism: The World Cup puts the global spotlight on the small state
  • Small size of country puts pressure on transport and hospitality
  • Hotel capacity aided by property rentals and temporary accommodation
  • UAE benefiting from closeness to Qatar and attracting visitors to hotels
  • World Cup seen as branding exercise, with hopes of sustaining tourism

More than one million people are expected to visit Qatar during the World Cup and the authorities are hoping that is the start of a new tourism boom.

The opportunity for a country to present itself to a global audience of billions does not come around often. As host of the tournament, Qatar certainly finds itself the focus of world media attention.

The country has spent up to $10 billion building the eight stadiums being used, according to the IMF. That is part of a wider $200 billion infrastructure outlay since the event was awarded, covering projects such as the Doha Metro, new highways and the Lusail City development.

At least some of that spending would have happened even without a tournament, although probably more gradually.

Media attention has not always been positive. Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani said in a speech at the opening of the Shura Council on October 25 that his country “has been subjected to an unprecedented campaign that no host country has ever faced”.

Yet Tamim went on to say that hosting the event was “a great test for a country the size of Qatar” and gave it a chance to “portray who we are.”

Size is certainly an issue. Compared to previous World Cups where fans have been spread across 10-12 cities, the tournament is happening in a tiny area, with all eight stadiums in and around Doha or a short distance away.

That puts pressure on transport and hospitality infrastructure.

Well over one million people are expected to come to Qatar to watch a game, and Fifa president Gianni Infantino has predicted five billion will tune in from abroad.

Huge numbers of people will be exposed to a country they may have never heard of before and would be unable to place on a map.

Dealing with them all has forced the authorities to take tight control. People are only allowed into Qatar with proof of a match ticket and booked accommodation. A centralised booking system has been set up for the 65,000 homes and apartments available to let, which is being managed by French hotel operator Accor.

Four fan villages have also been built providing a further 30,000 rooms, ranging from converted shipping containers to luxury tents.

Two cruise ships, the MSC Poesia and the MSC World Europa, are providing almost 4,000 cabins at Doha’s Grand Terminal.

In total, Qatar has manged to add around 100,000 rooms to the 31,000 permanent hotel rooms it had leading up to the tournament. Even so, the level of demand means providers have been able to levy a hefty premium for accommodation.

Research firm AB Bernstein says the average mark-up on hotel rooms is running at 1,000 percent, implying a 1-2 percent boost for their revenues for the fourth quarter of the year.

Some will do even better: Movenpick Doha and Grand Hyatt Doha are both charging mark-ups of more than 2,000 percent over their normal room price. 

The biggest player in Qatar is Marriott, which has 19 hotels and 5,429 rooms. Other major names include Hilton, with 12 properties and 2,862 rooms, and Accor, with 11 hotels and 2,612 rooms.

Accommodation in Qatar is largely booked out but some rooms are still available, albeit at a steep price. Going into the tournament, research firm STR estimated that occupancy levels would average 85 percent over the tournament as a whole.

As such data shows, the World Cup is providing a timely boost for the country’s tourism sector. In a report in June, the IMF said the influx of visitors would accelerate “the recovery of tourism, transportation, hospitality and catering sectors, which were hit hardest by the pandemic”.

However, Qatar’s size means supporters have been looking for nearby alternatives.

Hospitality research firm ForwardKeys says the volume of flight bookings to Qatar from the other 31 competing countries is ten times pre-pandemic levels, but most visitors are diving in and out fairly quickly, with little more than a third staying for more than two nights. 

Qatar tourismQatar Tourism
Qatar officials hope to attract six million visitors a year by 2030

“When looking at people flying into Qatar during the World Cup period, excluding those in transit, 7 percent are day trippers, 55 percent are staying one or two nights and 38 percent are staying longer,” says Olivier Ponti, vice president insights at ForwardKeys.

Many of those day trippers are coming from the UAE, where hotels have been able to attract football fans unable to find a room in Qatar itself. ForwardKeys estimates that 85 percent of the one-day visitors to Qatar are coming from the UAE. 

Once the teams and fans depart, much of the accommodation can be taken down or sailed away.

AB Bernstein senior research associate Kate Xiao said that “most of these are temporary solutions and existing apartments and holiday homes, so shouldn’t cause much waste after the matches.”

There will also be the challenge of filling the new stadiums. One venue, Stadium 974, is designed to be dismantled and shipped abroad, but the others will remain.

One solution is to hold more events. Qatar will host the 2023 Asian Cup football tournament and the 2030 Asian Games. Analysts say an Olympic Games bid is a possibility. 

Major sporting events are relatively thin on the ground, though, which is why the economic case for hosting big events is limited.

Hosts are often left with expensive, unloved and underused facilities. Critics argue the money spent would be better directed to meeting longer-term needs.

Doha is wealthy enough to not have to worry about whether the tournament is a direct money-spinner. It might be better seen as a giant branding exercise, with the authorities hoping the media exposure will create a huge pool of potential visitors in the future.

The IMF noted in its report that the event “will provide an opportunity to showcase Qatar’s achievements to the world, potentially attracting more visitors and investors”. 

Officials say they have a clear strategy to make sure the momentum continues after the tournament ends.

Berthold Trenkel, chief operating officer of Qatar Tourism, has talked about attracting 6 million visitors a year by 2030, triple the pre-pandemic number.

But after a good opening fortnight, the main task is to ensure the rest of the tournament itself runs smoothly.

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