Qatar seeks own tourism niche

With some 3000 hotel rooms to be added this year alone, GINA COLEMAN examines how Qatar is taking its $15bn masterplan forward
The City Centre, Doha. The city is gearing up for an annual 1.4 million visitors by 2010

QATAR, long popular with visitors from the Gulf for short breaks, has over the years also established significant markets in Europe – particularly the German-speaking countries.

Now, as the network of national carrier Qatar Airways extends still further, there are many people from far-flung parts of the globe who find the proposition of a short break in Qatar an attractive option – either as a stopover en-route to their final destination, or as part of a tour of the region.
This fits in with the country’s strategy to excel in niche market tourism, so as to make the sector sustainable in Qatar’s overall economy.
The fact that many tourists (though few realise it) receive a joint visa for Qatar and Oman on arrival in Doha (or vice-versa) obviously makes the two Gulf states an ideal combination. The country received some 850,000 visitors in 2006 and expects to receive an annual 1.4 million visitors by 2010 – to which end the country has ear-marked an investment of $15 billion in tourism infrastructure investment.
A number of new hotels, hotel and service apartments, opened up in Qatar last year, prior to the Asian Games. More are opening this year, or in the next couple of years as part of the 2010 Tourism Development Plan. According to Jan Poul de Boer, CEO of Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA), 300 hotel rooms were added last year (in addition to service apartments used initially to house the influx of media and ‘Asian Games Family’ visitors); “But this year we are adding 3000 rooms and by 2010 we will have a capacity of 11000 rooms, mainly in the 4/5 star category. Then it’s time to look at the next steps to be taken.”

The QTA has meanwhile decided to implement its hotel classification system in 2007. “We looked at the various rating systems in the Gulf and then decided to tailor make it for Qatar,” says de Boer. “We are very pleased with the outcome. The contract with the consultant company has been signed and we will educate and train nationals to become hotel establishment inspectors. We will make sure everything will be addressed, both the so called hard factors, physical appearance etc as well as soft factors which looks at the service delivery processes in the establishments”, but the tourism authority has no plans to follow other countries which authorise ‘price ranges’ for hotels or apartments in each category, believing that market supply and demand with the respective positioning of each property should determine the room rates. “It would be a step backwards to regulate it on government level.”
Qatar is now offering a wider choice in terms of star ratings, suites and service apartments, short and long stay options. Another major facility under development is the massive cultural village, between the InterContinental and Ritz-Carlton hotels in the West Bay lagoon area. Apart from heritage demonstrations and exhibitions, the area will house galleries and, importantly, a large conference facility. All of which will have a positive impact on tourism development according to de Boer.
“The effect will be that we can better market the strategies we have put in place during the last three years. We like Qatar to be the major niche market player for MICE, sports, medical, educational and cultural related travel. If you look at what is being developed in products like two major convention and exhibition centres, the museum of Islamic Arts, Hamad Medical City, all the new sport facilities, the restoration and expansion of the Souq Waqif, the Science and Technology Park, Energy City and Entertainment City as part of the Lusail development and many, many more new projects in the planning stages, we follow the master plan we revealed in 2004 and we are well on course. I am confident that we will be a very successful destination in the year’s to come.”
Those views were echoed by Ali  Al Rais, senior manager of commercial operations at Qatar Airways. Speaking at the AGM of the Arab Union for Hotels and Tourism in Qatar in February on behalf of Akbar Al Baker, chairman of QTA and CEO of the national carrier, he said, “You may consider our visitor numbers low compared to some neighbouring countries. But... we are highly focused on quality tourism - not quantity tourism.” He said Qatar’s tourism infrastructure is developing well, stressing the importance of an integrated approach involving the national airline, the airport and the QTA. The rapid growth of the national carrier is, he said, indicative of the policies adopted by the state to develop its tourism sector. The government-owned Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment and Development Company is behind the huge Lusail Development with its proposed entertainment city and marinas; the area will ultimately house 200,000 people.
Qatari Diar’s development director, Rowan Colman, says the company’s new projects in Qatar will provide ‘an unprecedented living style and experience for Qatari nationals and resident expatriates, but also for visitors to the country’. The Lusail development, covering over 22 square kilometres, will attract top international businessmen and high-end visitors.”
The Souq Waqif redevelopment referred to by de Boer has revitalised the old market area, turning it into an attractive venue featuring traditional architecture and full of small shops selling old Qatari artefacts and traditional crafts as well as filling the role of a traditional working souq. During the Asian Games it was a great draw for visitors seeking photo opportunities, the chance to sample typical Qatari cuisine, and hunting for authentic souvenirs. The growing number of large shopping malls offering leisure and entertainment activities also act as a magnet for residents and visitors alike.
“The tourism life cycle will reach maturity by 2010, when we open the first phase of the new Doha International Airport,” says de Boer. Qatar Airways is growing at an incredible pace and many new destinations will start to become new feeder markets; by that time we will have adopted our strategy to service the stop over market using Doha as gateway. Today, GCC countries are still our number one market but once we reach 2010 the mix will have changed considerably.”
After successfully hosting over 10,500 athletes plus thousands of broadcast and print journalists and technicians as well as visiting spectators for the more than 400 sporting events that made up Doha 2006 last year, the Qatar National Olympic Committee expressed an intention for the country to bid for the 2016 Olympics. De Boer says: “A top achievement if it would be awarded, I am sure the country can pull it off, given the success of the Asian Games.We could cope given the hotel developments foreseen in the next decade, and QTA would of course play its role in the bid book.”

Meanwhile one of the country’s main tourism attractions, the spectacular Inland Sea (Khor Al Udeid) in the south of the country, has been designated a natural reserve. An area of immense natural beauty and rich in flora and fauna, the area is also a potential candidate for listing as a UN World Heritage Site. A number of inbound tour operators offer half-day, full-day and overnight tours to the Inland Sea at present and a visit to Khor Al Udeid is considered an essential item on the itinerary of most visitors. Protecting the area for future generations, the new decree bans any activity or measures that might harm, affect, degenerate or alter the natural environment, the wild life, the vegetation, the marine life or the beauty of the landscape, specifically barring hunting,  the relocation of flora or fauna and the destruction, devastation or deformation of the geological and geographic formations of natural habitats and breeding areas.