The head of the Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA) has accused his country’s neighbors of using tourism as a weapon, as the Gulf emirate continues to search for ways to rescue its travel sector in light of the ongoing trade boycott by Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The number of visitors to Qatar fell by more than a third in the first half of this year – some 945,000 visitors arrived in the first six months of 2018, compared to 1.5 million in the same period of 2017. The vast majority of the fall was due to the collapse in visitor numbers from the Gulf Cooperation Council, following the launch of a boycott by three members of the bloc in June last year.
The result has been 538,000 fewer visitors from the GCC this year, an 84% slump. There was also a 45% drop in visitors from other parts of the Arab world. Higher visitor numbers from other regions such as Asia, Europe and the Americas were far too small to offset these falls.
Hassan Al-Ibrahim, acting chairman of the QTA, said Qatar had been faced with a situation where “other countries are weaponizing tourism” and said his organisation was now following a strategy of trying to diversify its source markets. “The way we’ve designed our strategy is not to depend on a single geographic zone,” he said. “We’re making sure that we are protecting our industry.”
Speaking in Doha on the sidelines of the IPEC conference earlier this month, Ibrahim tried to put a brave face on the situation, saying the boycott – or “blockade” as Qataris generally refer to it – is forcing it to develop its tourism strategy more quickly than it would otherwise have done. “It’s helping us with expediting our plans for the future,” he said. “Qatar as a destination prior to the blockade was not diversifying its markets. We focused so much on our region.”
In an effort to attract a broader range of visitors, the authorities have relaxed the entry rules for dozens of nationalities over the past year. Passport holders from some 88 countries can now visit Qatar without a visa and a free visa is available to transit passengers at the airport as well.
These policies may yet be extended, although Ibrahim is cautious about how far the country will go. “We’re assessing the success of all these policies and if enhancements are needed,” he said, adding that there are “economic and security measurements that we take into consideration before opening up to other countries.”
World Cup hopes
Perhaps the strongest card that Qatar has to play while trying to promote itself as a tourism destination is the football World Cup, which it is due to host in 2022. The eight stadiums being used for the tournament are in various stages of completion, but the country is guaranteed plenty of exposure over the coming years as the event approaches.
Not all of that will be positive. Questions continue to be asked about the conditions of construction workers involved in developing the tournament’s facilities, with Amnesty International recently claiming that some have gone unpaid for months.
Concerns have also been raised about whether fans’ access to alcohol will prove a difficulty in what is a deeply conservative society. Ibrahim says the issue “is being curated right now and it is something that will definitely be part of our commitment as a destination.”
He points out that Qatar has plenty of experiencing in planning and hosting major sporting events, including the Asian Games in 2006 and the IAAF World Athletics Championship which is due to take place next year. “Alcohol consumption has not been an issue in any of the events that we have been hosting,” he said. “We don’t anticipate alcohol to be an issue in the World Cup.”
Whether the country will have sufficient hotel rooms in place by the time the tournament happens is another question that has often been raised. Here, Doha is also being rather cautious, with Ibrahim saying “part of our plan was to try not to build white elephants. So we are capping the number of developments that will happen.”
The country will provide temporary accommodation, in part by using cruise ships. “Our planning efforts are focusing so much on not over-building, but building enough units that would help us to create a sustainable tourism sector.” Of the idea of using nearby Iranian island resorts as overflow for some visitors, as has sometimes been mooted, Ibrahim said “I’m not aware of such a thing.”
Keepings its construction projects relatively modest may well be sensible, particularly if the current diplomatic impasse with its neighbors persists. Maya Senussi, a senior economist at U.K.-based consultancy Oxford Economics, says Qatar could lead the GCC in terms of growth in visitor numbers in the coming years “assuming it can recover” from the Saudi-led boycott.
However, in a research note published on October 15, she added “If visitor numbers remain below envisaged targets, there is a clear risk of substantial over-capacity when facilities developed for the 2022 World Cup are completed.”
One thing that may help the country attract more tourists over the long-term is the development of its cultural amenities. The impressive Rem Koolhaas-designed Qatar National Library was opened in April and a new Jean Nouvel-designed National Gallery is currently taking shape between Doha city centre and the airport. There is stiff competition in this area though, particularly from rivals like Abu Dhabi which has invested heavily in museums such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi which opened in November 2017.