Cruise tourism is fast becoming a key area of focus for Qatar as part of its broader bid to stimulate industry expansion, with the 2017/18 season expected to deliver the best results to date.
The cruise season was officially launched on October 26, with the arrival of the Seabourn Encore at Doha Port. A total of 21 liners are expected to call at the port before the season closes in April.
In a first for Qatar, two megaships – classified as vessels with a capacity of between 2500 and 6000 passengers – will be calling at the port in the coming months. According to the Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA), the ships will be joined by five liners making their maiden voyage to the country.
A total of 47,000 crew and passengers came ashore in the 2016/17 season, representing a 1000% increase on the previous year’s numbers. The arrival of the larger vessels this season will play a pivotal role in improving on last year’s figures. Further passenger growth is also predicted through to the 2019/20 season, when the QTA is targeting 300,000 cruise-line visitors.
In line with the authority’s strategy, ground was broken earlier this year on the QR2bn ($549.3m) redevelopment of Doha Port which is set to be transformed into a dedicated cruise terminal. While full completion is scheduled for 2022, the infrastructure required to allow five vessels to dock simultaneously is expected to be finished by 2020.
Next Chapter strategy targets higher numbers of arrivals
Late September saw the country set out its broader ambitions for the tourism industry through the launch of the Next Chapter of the Qatar National Tourism Sector Strategy 2030.
The development blueprint outlines a number of targets for the 2017-23 period, including: attracting 5.6m tourists per year, double the 2016 total; achieving a 72% occupancy rate in Qatar’s hotels, up from an average of 62% in the first half of 2017; and raising the sector’s direct contribution to GDP from QR19.8bn ($5.4bn) last year to QR41.3bn ($11.3bn).
Changes to the sector’s governance were also delineated in the plan, with the duties and responsibilities of the QTA to be incorporated into a new entity, the National Tourism Council (NTC).
The NTC’s main tasks will be attracting investment, overseeing strategic planning and regulating the sector. To achieve its goals, the council will be given oversight of three new entities charged with developing new large-scale tourism products and offerings, consolidating the work of existing business events stakeholders and promoting Qatar as a destination internationally.
Bilateral connections and visa reforms to expand international reach
As Qatar looks to offset a downturn in GCC tourists due to a blockade imposed in June by a number of the bloc’s member states, work is progressing to market the country’s tourism potential outside the region.
In line with these aims, the QTA announced plans on October 21 to open offices in both India and Russia before the end of the year. Soon after, news broke that the authority would be collaborating with Welcome Chinese, a hospitality standard dedicated to Chinese tourists. The initiative is expected to help the Qatari industry meet the requirements of visitors from China.
Arguably the biggest move taken towards boosting foreign arrivals in recent months, however, was the decision to allow visa-free entry for citizens of 80 countries.
The announcement in early August brought into immediate effect visa-free entry for eligible travellers with a confirmed outbound ticket, and came on the back of the creation of an e-visa platform one month earlier.
Travel had already been made easier in November 2016, when Qatar Airways and the QTA launched a transit visa scheme, allowing passengers of any nationality with a minimum transit time of five hours at Hamad International Airport to remain in the country for up to 96 hours.
According to the tourism authority, the scheme led to a 39% year-on-year (y-o-y) increase in stopover visitors in the first half of 2017.
Visitors from Europe and Americas on the upswing
An upswing in visitors from outside the GCC in 2017 indicates the recent moves to strengthen and diversify the tourism industry are paying off. Figures from the QTA’s latest Tourism Performance Summary revealed that during the January to September period, visitors from Europe and the Americas rose by 8% and 4% y-o-y, respectively.
Visitors from Africa also increased significantly – by 33% – although this region represents a smaller share of total arrivals compared to other regions.
In contrast, GCC visitors declined 35% y-o-y, while arrivals from other Arab nations fell by 18%, a downturn that is expected to continue following the introduction of the blockade in June.
Therefore, industry growth for the second half of the year will remain reliant on attracting tourists from markets outside of the region.