The best-kept secret beckons...

Qatar Airways Holidays aims to unveil the Gulf's best-kept secret to the discerning traveller as Qatar bids to become a top international tourist destination. SALVADOR ALMEIDA reports.
A desert experience for tourists.

Qatar, the tiny peninsula jutting out into the Arabian Sea in the eastern Gulf and known until not long ago as a laid-back seafaring nation and in more recent years as a significant producer of oil and natural gas, is on the verge of opening up in a big way to international tourism.

Holidaymakers and business houses in the hospitality sector are waking up to the fact that the Middle East's best-kept secret is unfolding itself with a vengeance for leisure tourism, lovers of water sports and business travellers.

Among the opportunities that beckon tourists are sand skiing in northern Qatar's pristine dunes area, water sports in an unspoilt environment and a look at the Arabian oryx.

An unprecedented surge in hotel infrastructure has been witnessed in the past two years and the process is continuing.

New hotels include the lavishly designed Ritz Carlton, which is being readied for an opening in late September, and the Holiday Inn, also due for opening shortly.

Doha city itself has undergone a metamorphosis in certain sectors. The West Bay area is unrecognisable to those visiting after five years.

The glittering City Center with a sprawling ice-rink, top-drawer outlets and a large and modern hypermarket is a clear landmark.

The talk is that with several luxury hotels having come up in the West Bay area and more facilities expected in the near future, the area could take on the proportions of Dubai's Jumeirah Beach and possibly rival it for the attractions before long.

A massive initiative has been launched to bring in the discerning traveller for the holiday experience of a kind that is increasingly becoming difficult to gain in the region and the rest of the world.

A key factor in that effort is the national airline, Qatar Airways, which has formed a new division called Qatar Airways Holidays for offering holiday packages as a companion to the airline's flight services, including stays in Qatar under the Discover Qatar segment.

Head of Qatar Airways Holidays Mark Senior says: "Often, once people have been to Qatar they can understand why it is considered one of the Gulf's best kept secrets.

"Qatar already has lots to offer the discerning leisure traveller. With quality hotels and even more to come, Doha is now well placed to service the needs of tourists regionally and from Europe, Asia and beyond."

According to Senior, feedback from visiting media and travel industry professionals has confirmed that expectations can be easily exceeded at present.

He says the challenge now for the government and the tourism industry in Qatar is to market and promote the country's attractions while at the same time managing expectations.

A tourism development council has been formed as an autonomous government body with Qatar Airways taking a prominent role in its activities.

It was only in February of this year that Qatar Airways started to aggressively market its inbound services, recognising that the first priority was to bring travel industry professionals and related media to Qatar to experience the product on offer.

Through trade exhibitions, product launches and working closely with Qatar Airways' overseas offices, the holidays division was able to identify the right people to invite.

"I am pleased to say that in a short period of time, we have established distribution of holidays and stopover packages to Qatar through operators in the UK, Germany and France and will do so in other European markets," said Senior.

The media have suggested that now is the time to sample the flavour of Qatar. As in Dubai, Europeans will like to travel here year-round.

A European tour operator indicated that the hot summers would attract those seeking a different-quality holiday experience but at prices similar to or even cheaper than some Mediterranean options.

For the same standard hotel in Spain or the South of France, one could pay the same or even more, and Qatar is more than seven hours away and a very different cultural experience.

The new hotels are continuing to bring quality food and beverage outlets which offer greater choice for both tourists and the local community.

Between the newly refurbished Marriott and the newly opened Inter-Continental, diners have the choice of Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Indonesian, Italian, Indian and traditional Arabic cuisines.

The shopping scene has been transformed with two new complexes in recent months - the Landmark Mall and the massive Doha City Center.

The Doha City Center offers serious shopping blended with entertainment in the form of the best of branded goods, franchised outlets, bowling, ice-skating, the Water Park, theme park-style rides, a multi-screen cinema and a toboggan run with real snow.

Visitors with a feel for times past will relish the traditional souks in the old quarters of Doha.

Qatar Airways Holidays is working in partnership with local companies to provide under its Discover Qatar initiative, tailor-made tour and sight-seeing options including a trip to the pristine desert dunes area in the north of the country.

An experience that awaits visitors is sand skiing down large dunes right onto a deserted beach bordering the Arabian Sea.

Other opportunities that will be packaged include an amazing golf course, historical sights, sporting activities, interesting landscapes and the beautiful Arabian oryx sanctuary.

"As an airline, Qatar Airways will continue to work hard through its overseas stations to create awareness of our quality services in the air and to market our inbound programmes to Doha," said Senior.

"We aim to offer value-for-money stopover packages in Doha as well as longer stay holidays for leisure travellers who want sun, sand and sea."

The airline is coming out strongly to eliminate what it says is a distinct lack of awareness of what Qatar has to offer to leisure travellers and other visitors.

Through focused marketing, it expects to capitalise on regional tourism growth, believing there is something for Qatar as holidaymakers look for new fields to unwind.

"One of the reasons we're launching Destination Qatar is because all of our Qatar Airways offices are telling us that many tour operators and travel agencies are asking whether QA offers any services on the ground," said Senior.

He maintained that none of the Qatar tour operators had taken the initiative to offer products focused on European clients which Qatar Airways Holidays is targeting for the bulk of its business.

"What we mean by that is when it comes to the chosen excursion it needs to be informative and interesting while at the same time focusing on quality and value for money," he said.

"We have the creativity. We're backed by the government; we have the distributors (Qatar Airways offices) and we have a strong team."

Senior's experience includes a 20-year stint with Thomas Cook. Until last year he worked with Net Tours in Dubai. An important member of the Qatar Airways inbound tourism team is Kimmo Korkeila of Finland who has worked for a Finnish tour operator for 10 years.

"When it comes to infrastructure, what we have to offer the visitor is the same as what Dubai has but on a smaller scale such as good hotels and good shopping," said Senior.