Qatar’s bid for maturity

Rather than trying to recreate Dubai’s success as a mass-market destination, Qatar is positioning itself as a short-stay leisure and business travel spot, the Qatar Tourism Authority’s Jan Poul de Boer tells GINA COLEMAN
Doha the host city of the Games

AS Qatar gears up to host the 15th Asian Games, Doha 2006, The Games of Your Life, Jan Poul de Boer, acting director general of the Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA), tells TTN that this is a busy and exciting time for the country, which is nevertheless focusing on the development of a mature tourism market within the next five years.

What are the QTA’s plans for this year and beyond?
Obviously this is a very important year for us at the QTA, and for Qatar. The Asian Games is the biggest thing we have ever done. It is also exciting that several much-need new hotels are opening around the end of the year, as does the new IM Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Arts. So 2006 will see quite an increase in facilities. Hotel rooms will increase to 10,000 – something we really need for a sustainable sector and to develop tourism accordingly. We will be promoting Qatar – but more for the years beyond, because this year everything is already busy.
I also believe that Qatar is a leisure destination that works very well in combination with other places in the Gulf – such as Oman – or the sub-continent. It’s an important aspect of our development.

In terms of leisure tourism, what markets and regions are you targeting? What is your traveller mix?
If we want to be a mature player in tourism here in the Gulf what is important is the exposure we try to obtain from the various feeder markets. It’s obvious that we follow Qatar Airways (the national carrier) very closely. When they open up new routes we look at the market and develop our strategies accordingly. We aim to grow Qatar into a mature tourism destination in the next three or four years. We will concentrate on certain market segments; MICE, the educational market, medical-travel related with the new Hamad Medical City opening after the Asian Games; also cultural tourism with the new museums. We don’t want to be a mass-market destination. Dubai has done a fantastic job; they are a mass-market destination, but we want to be a destination people choose for perhaps three days and link with other destinations, and one that appeals to the top segment of the travel market. We are looking at representation offices in Europe, Asia and the Far East, and possibly, North America. Qatar Airways is scheduled to begin its flights to America this year but expansion is sure to follow with the opening of the New Doha International Airport.
Just a few years ago, people overseas didn’t know where Qatar was. In the past three years we have put it on the map.
It has been a bit frustrating to go to major exhibitions – like ITB, where we will be this March – having to maintain relationships but wait for the development. [There are proposals for 41 new hotels and hotel apartment blocks in Doha at present.] But now we’re getting the sector developed.
If you look at tourism now, 95 per cent of arrivals and hotel occupancy is business-related. That mix will have to change; hopefully we will move to a 60 per cent business, 40 per cent leisure mix, and maybe get business travellers to extend their trip by a couple of days for leisure. That would be a good market and a visit here will work very well for travellers in combination with other destinations.

How important to the development of tourism here are joint visas of the kind Qatar has with Oman?
I attended an Arab League conference in Cairo in December and the visa issue was very high on the agenda. I think you will see some major changes happening this year. Qatar is a small country with a small ‘original’ population. Security is an important consideration but I think that this year you will see more co-operation between the Gulf states in this respect than ever before, related to tourism, but security is very important for all of them.

So obviously construction of the Friendship Bridge between Qatar and Bahrain and the causeway between Qatar and Abu Dhabi will boost intra-Gulf tourism?
Definitely those will be of great benefit to us because there will be easy access to Qatar – for example for people who are flying in to Bahrain from other parts of the world and will be able to come here across the bridge. It will make the area much more open and available.

Can you elaborate on the cultural tours, with the natural history, science and photographic museums. Will you be cultivating the tour operators that specialise in these tours? What has happened with moves to have the Inland Sea listed as a World Heritage Site?
What is important first is to increase the hotel capacity. All our rooms are fully booked at the moment; that’s a situation which will change very rapidly in the next two to three years. We really will go after these markets once we have enough capacity. Until then, we have to maintain relationships and tell operators and tour companies about our destination.
Everyone living here will recognize that Khor Al Udeid, the Inland Sea, is spectacular. It’s a tremendous tourism attraction and we have to protect it; it’s unique; the only other inland sea is in Namibia, and it’s nothing like as beautiful. We were financed for a study in co-operation with Unesco, which has been completed. It’s called a Nomination File and is like a blueprint of steps to be taken to make it into a World Heritage Site. We’ve handed over the study, and the list of steps to be taken, to Qatar’s Supreme Council for the Environment and Natural Reserves. They will be the driving force to make it happen, in terms of legislation, park rangers and access control.
Our other sporting events, are top-class attractions for visitors. They often offer free entry and we will be able to use them to invite and encourage people to come to Qatar, stay in our hotels and watch those events, bringing extra revenue for the government.

What is the status on your planned scheme to officially grade the country’s hotels and issue star ratings?
We have done all our homework; with a German company we looked at how to classify licences and control the quality of the hotels. Everything is ready to roll out. Once the first major batch of hotels opens in the winter of 2006/2007, when we have another three or four thousand hotel rooms on line, we will then start with the implementation of what is a valuable and necessary programme.

What about inbound tour companies? Do you have a regulatory role in licensing, and does that apply to tour guides as well?
We issue the licences for inbound tour operators, but although I would love to do it, we haven’t yet done any training for tour guides. And controlling the tourism industry is what we’re here for. Our people go around looking at things and we send out circulars when things need to be altered, amended or suspended. We have no control over literature about Qatar, but we supply information to companies that need it.

Tell us about the QTA-established Convention Bureau? Do you have a role in co-ordinating the planning of conferences? There are often several events on at the same time, forcing delegates to make a choice and leaving conferences vying for media coverage.
When we started the bureau three years ago we became a member of the major international organizations such as Meeting Planners International and the Society of Incentives Executives. That put us on the map; and the 14th WTO Ministerial conference in Doha in 2001 sparked interest in Qatar as a major conference destination. We are also building a massive new convention centre at Education City and we will have major plans to extend the Qatar International Exhibition Centre and upgrade it to a state-of-the-art facility.
By Emiri Decree we are planning and organising all the events taking place in the country, but we still have a long way to go to ensure there are no conflicts and that it works to everyone’s advantage.

The $15 billion tourism plan Qatar unveiled spoke of a North Beach development on the edge of Doha. What is the progress on that?
It’s now being called the Losail Project. It’s a major development: 35 sqkm with hotels, mixed use development, housing, shops, marinas, golf courses and so on. It’s a very ambitious project that has been approved by the government and is being developed by the state owned Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment Company. The funds are already there and it will add to the tourism project. Plans have also been drawn up for the Al Khor development (40 km north of Doha) but progress there is a little slower.

Finally, if we’re going to develop tourism, we need qualified personnel. Institutions such as the CHN University Campus in Doha run a number of relevant courses; does QTA work with them? Are you encouraging tourism studies?
Qatar’s Planning Council has estimated that once we mature the tourism industry, the number of jobs in the sector will increase to about 35,000. So education is extremely important. Every year QTA pays for between 10 and 20 students to study at CHN. Hopefully graduates will work here and form the backbone of the industry. Tourism is a big business, relatively eco-friendly and offers plenty of job opportunities.