Qatar’s tourism sector is gearing up for expansion in anticipation of a major influx of tourists for the six-week 2022 FIFA World Cup. The event is expected to attract close to the 1m visitors that travelled to Brazil for the most recent World Cup in 2014. In the build-up to the tournament, investment is being channelled into the development of tourism-related infrastructure to accommodate visitor traffic, and provide avenues of entertainment and sightseeing.
In 2016, following the slump in global oil prices, the government identified tourism as one of several priority sectors to be expanded in pursuit of diversification, and a high-level taskforce was created to drive its growth. The strategy revision process began in April 2017, and the economic blockade led by Saudi Arabia and several other Arab nations imposed in June 2017 gave it new impetus and momentum.
The blockade has had an impact on Qatar’s tourism sector, with the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) reporting that tourism numbers were down by 44.6% year-on-year (y-o-y) in June 2017, the month that the blockade was imposed.
According to Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA), total arrivals fell from 2.19m in the first three quarters of 2016 to 1.81m in the same period of 2017. Arrivals of GCC nationals dropped by 35% compared to the same period in 2016, and arrivals of other Arab nationals were down by 18%. However, the number of arrivals from Europe and the Americas grew by 8% and 4%, respectively, in the first nine months of 2017.
In September 2017 Taleb Rifai, secretary-general of the UNWTO, told the local press that he believes Qatar is well suited to weather this period, and that its strong tourism infrastructure would help attract visitors from around the world.
The government remains the key driver of growth in the sector, promoting the country as a family-friendly, culturally authentic sports and business destination in line with the Qatar National Tourism Sector Strategy 2030 (QNTSS). The 2014 document provides the framework for sector development, and lays out the government’s objectives, which include attracting 7m visitors by 2030.
More recently, in September 2017, Qatar launched The Next Chapter of the QNTSS 2017-23, which updates the strategic framework for the medium term, and builds upon the foundation established in 2014.
Though the country is becoming a more popular destination, the growing number of hotels and the impact of the downturn in oil prices on business travel have contributed to an oversupplied hospitality segment. This is putting downward pressure on hotel occupancy and average daily rates (see analysis). The sector’s key operating metrics are expected to remain under pressure in the short term, but likely to rebound in the long term due to growing demand with the approach of the World Cup.
In recognition of the value of the sector as a hedge against future oil price fluctuations, the government has designated tourism a priority in its economic diversification efforts.
The regulation, development and promotion of a sustainable tourism sector are the responsibility of QTA, a department of the government. QTA is tasked with expanding and diversifying Qatar’s tourism industry, including attractions and accommodation for travellers, by identifying products and services that will contribute to a more diverse offering. QTA also promotes Qatar abroad through international representation and participation in trade shows.
National Tourism Council
Under The Next Chapter of the QNTSS 2017-23, the duties and responsibilities of QTA will be folded into a new entity, the National Tourism Council (NTC). The NTC is a result of the government’s decision to develop a new governance structure for the sector, which will coordinate, consolidate and focus the efforts of its stakeholders and key members. The NTC’s main tasks will be attracting investment, strategic planning and the regulation of the sector.
In order to accomplish its goals, the NTC will be given oversight over three new entities charged with developing new large-scale tourism products and offerings, promoting Qatar as a destination internationally, and consolidating the work of existing business events stakeholders. The NTC will be guided in its mission by the QNTSS, which has set out a plan for the tourism sector’s future development.
One of the targets set out in The Next Chapter of the QNTSS 2017-23 is attracting a total of 5.6m visitors annually by 2023, 67% of which should fall under the leisure category. This is in line with the aim of increasing the number of annual hotel guests to 4m. Another goal is for non-GCC visitors to make up 69% of the total by 2023.
Recent projections indicate that Qatar is on track to meet its 2023 tourism targets, and may be able to exceed them with the right investments. The Next Chapter projects that $34bn is needed in investment from the private sector to meet these targets. Ongoing government-driven developments include the construction of the National Museum of Qatar, as well as large-scale public infrastructure projects, such as the Doha metro (see Construction chapter), that directly benefit the tourism sector.
The prime minister’s office is playing a growing role in the sector, launching recent initiatives aimed at synchronising its efforts with tourism. A comprehensive review of the QNTSS was conducted by QTA and its partners in the private sector in mid-2017 following a directive from the prime minister.
QTA promotes Qatar as a destination internationally, working with operators to reach out to target audiences and attract investments for tourism development. This has been accomplished in part by developing a network of international offices that bolster the country’s global presence in key markets and also facilitates promotional activities, including road shows, advertising campaigns and familiarisation trips to Qatar, among other things.
In 2016 QTA established offices in Istanbul and New York, which are responsible for promoting Qatar in neighbouring markets. In addition, QTA has representative offices in London, Paris, Beijing, Berlin and Singapore. Hotels in Qatar often choose to participate in government-sponsored booths at international exhibitions as a means of promoting specific packages to new international markets. QTA has also developed an innovative programme called Tawash, which trains hundreds of independent travel agents online on how to become ambassadors for the country.
Open For Business
Domestically, QTA is working closely with relevant authorities to speed up the passage of laws and introduce policies that increase Qatar’s openness to tourists, and further incentivise and facilitate foreign investment in the sector. For instance, it has developed a new electronic licensing process for tourism businesses, and recently established an Investment Promotions Unit in order to facilitate a dialogue between investors, both local and international talent, and the government authorities.
As the lead regulatory authority in the sector, QTA launched a grading and classification system in January 2016 of all hospitality establishments in the country, evaluating each one on standards in guest experience, sustainability, accessibility and reflection of culture in service, among other relevant criteria. QTA’s objective is to ensure that international standards for star ratings are universally implemented and maintained, and that criteria relevant to Qatar inform star ratings.
The broad view among operators in the industry, many of whom conduct their own internal audits, is that the new classification system is a welcome initiative that will thin out competition among new hotels. QTA is also reassessing the hospitality sector on pricing and room offerings with the aim of properly structuring the segment. “I believe there is still potential in the four-star-plus market,” Hamad Al Mulla, the CEO of Katara Hospitality, told OBG. “The key is to positively differentiate your hotels from others. If you just copy the hotels that are already here, you will fail. New hotels will attract the necessary guests if they have unique propositions.”
At the local small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) level, a 2015 study, which was carried out by Qatar Development Bank in partnership with QTA, identified 32 opportunities and six fast-track projects for local industry and SMEs to convert gaps in the tourism market. These include luxury dhow ( traditional boat) dining cruises, luxury coaches, 4×4 leasing companies, meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE), ticketing and mobile information centres, and SME cottage markets.
Ease of travel is increasingly important to the region, and Qatar has launched several initiatives aimed at improving tourist visa policy to attract more international visitors.
In November 2016 Qatar Airways (QA) and QTA launched a new transit visa scheme that allows QA passengers with a minimum transit time of five hours at Hamad International Airport (HIA) to stay in the country for up to 96 hours. Qatar’s increasingly liberal visa policy also saw it waive visas for citizens from more than 80 countries in August 2017.
“The 96-hour transit visa is a positive step but it needs to be marketed better, as very few people know about it,” Al Mulla told OBG. “We have to identify the markets where this kind of offer would be appealing, then make a focused effort to persuade travellers from these markets to break up their travel plans and spend a few nights in Qatar.”
As part of a push to attract more visitors and ensure passengers can make the most of the new transit visa, QA has also restructured its fares for international flights transiting through HIA. While it had previously been considerably more expensive to remain in Qatar when passing through with QA on a long-haul flight from Europe or the US to Asia, the new scheme will allow passengers to have a free stopover in Doha without additional charges to their ticket on the outbound or inbound journey. Working together, QTA and QA kicked off a global marketing campaign in January 2017 to encourage passengers to use the stopover option. With 30m people transiting through the airport in 2016, converting a larger percentage of these to visitors is a priority.
Attracting just a small proportion of these millions of passengers who transit through Doha to spend one or two nights in the city would be a boon to many tour operators. “Any time you make it easier through visa regulation to visit a destination, any time you do visa on arrival, and any time you make it easy for a transit visa, it is a very big stimulus to tourism,” Guy Hutchinson, chief operating officer at Rotana Hotels, told reporters in February 2017.
On May 1, 2017 QTA and QA launched +Qatar, which allows transiting passengers to receive a free night’s stay in a five- or four-star hotel in Doha. Within one month of its introduction the number of stopover passengers increased by 40%.
Another recent initiative was the introduction of an online visa application service for tourists and business travellers in June 2017. QA, QTA and the Ministry of Interior (MoI) signed a memorandum of understanding in 2016 to launch the system via outsourcing and technology services specialist VFS Global. Individuals from countries that are not among those currently eligible to collect visas on arrival can initiate the application rather than relying on a hotel to apply on their behalf.
It was announced in September 2017 that, through the same website, nationals of any country who have a visa or residence permit for GCC or Schengen countries, the UK, the US, Canada, Australia or New Zealand can also apply for an Electronic Travel Authorisation, which enables them to obtain a visa on arrival in Qatar.
These initiatives are a direct result of the increased collaboration between QTA, the MoI and QA, which received a major push with the launch of the high-level tourism task force by the prime minister’s office.
Qatar continued to attract a growing number of visitors in 2016 and the sector’s contribution to the economy rose as a result. The direct contribution of travel and tourism to the country’s GDP – including spending on hotels, travel agents, restaurants, tourist transportation and related services – stood at 3.5%, or QR19.8bn ($5.4bn), in 2016, according to QTA, which was up from 2.7% in 2015.
According to projections in The Next Chapter of the QNTSS 2017-23, the sector’s direct contribution to GDP will reach 3.8%, or QR41.3bn ($11.3bn), by 2023, while the sector’s total contribution is forecast to hit 7.5%, or QR81.2bn ($22.4bn).
According to QTA, in the first three quarters of 2017 Qatar welcomed 1.81m visitors, compared to 2.19m visitors in the same period of 2016, an 18% decline in total visitors. Much of this decline is due to the decrease in GCC arrivals as a result of the diplomatic dispute which began on June 5.
Major Projects & Investment
At the same time, investment in tourism is rising. WTTC figures indicate that capital investment in tourism stood at QR6.1bn ($1.7bn) in 2016, and is set to increase by 13.6% in 2017. Investments in new demand generators include the $434m project to build the National Museum of Qatar by the end of 2018 and Msheireb Downtown Doha (MDD), a QR20m ($5.5m) sustainable development project to add retail, housing, museums and hotels to the area. The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy is also working on developing the Doha Port area into both a full-time cruise terminal and tourist-friendly entertainment district. It is expected to be completed by 2022, with the completion of infrastructure developed to allow for at least five vessels to dock at the same time expected by 2020.
In addition to infrastructure and construction projects, Qatar is developing more diverse tourism products in line with a refocused 2030 sector strategy. The cruise industry carries significant growth potential, with registered ship calls at Doha’s harbours tripling y-o-y to 22, with more than 47,000 passengers and crew on board, in the 2016/17 cruise season, according to QTA.
In 2016 QTA signed an agreement with TUI Cruises to bring seven ships to Qatar’s ports in 2017/18. Further discussions with other major cruise line operators are expected to strengthen the segment, with the number of vessels and passenger numbers projected to reach 40 and 250,000, respectively, by the 2018/19 season, according to Qatar Ports Management Company. QTA has projected that the latter number will rise to 300,000 in 2019/20.
The 2016/17 season was the first in which Doha received the vast megaships that can transport up to 3500 visitors, the majority of whom disembark on a sea transit visa, developed in 2016, for the eight hours that they stay in Qatar.
The cruise tourism segment represents just one of the potential avenues for sector expansion that falls within QTA’s four core focus areas for sector promotion and development, which are culture and heritage, sports and recreation, urban and family entertainment, and business events.
Qatar’s business events segment, which contributed 5.3% to the country’s non-hydrocarbons GDP in 2016, is a priority pillar under the QNTSS, and the country has invested heavily in fortifying its position as a regional destination for MICE.
In November 2015 Qatar opened the $631.8m Doha Exhibition and Convention Centre. Located in West Bay, and spread over 47,700 sq metres, the centre has five exhibition halls with a total capacity for 3500 delegates, as well as 18 meeting rooms.
Doha’s other leading exhibition hall is the eco-friendly Qatar National Convention Centre, which opened in December 2011 with a host of integrative design elements that aim to achieve the highest environmental and sustainability standards. The facility includes 40,000 sq metres of exhibition space across nine halls. The centre has been the recipient of multiple venue awards since its inception, including Middle East Event Awards (2013), World Travel Awards (2012 to 2016), MICE Report Awards (2012) and Business Destinations Travel Awards (2012).
QTA has been working to facilitate the growth of business events as a core tourism sub-sector in the country. In 2015 it launched the Business Event subbrand to promote the country as a leading destination for business meetings, events and exhibitions.
The liberalisation of visa policies in 2017 is also expected to give the segment a boost. In addition, the government plans to inject $1.3bn in spending on conference-related infrastructure aimed at increasing the options for event planners and growing the country’s appeal over the next six years.
Early dividends include news in March 2017 that QTA had already granted licences for 75 exhibitions for 2017. These results provide evidence that the government is on track to reach its long-term objectives in the MICE segment, which include tripling the number of business tourists by 2030, and increasing the number of exhibitions and conventions by more than 20 and 30 events a year, respectively.
Notwithstanding this progress, the groundwork is still being laid. The country is yet to have a dedicated convention bureau, but the Business Events Guide – a one-stop meetings guide for event planners that lists all venues and options in Qatar – was launched in March 2017. Increased government engagement will be key to sector development in the lead up to the 2023 and 2030 milestones.
The Next Chapter of the QNTSS 2017-23 includes a focus on the integration of all stakeholders in the business events sub-sector, and on attracting international business events. In order to upgrade the services provided to both planners and delegates, a supportive regulatory framework for sector infrastructure will be expanded. The strategy places strong emphasis on reaching out to the international events industry through focused promotion and supporting cooperation with organisers.
High-profile sporting events are another inbound tourism hook. Recently hosted or scheduled tournaments in the country include the International Boxing Association World Championship (2015), the Handball World Championships (2015), the Union Cycliste Internationale Road Cycling World Championships (2016), the inaugural QTA-sponsored Doha Triathlon (2017), the FIG Artistic Gymnastics World Championships (2018), the International Association of Athletics Federations World Athletics Championship (2019) and the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Qatar stages annual golf and tennis events, and in 2016 hosted a friendly between European football giants FC Barcelona and Al Ahli Saudi FC of the Saudi Professional League as part of a sponsorship deal with Qatar Sports Investment and QA. “We should be the sports capital of the Middle East,” Gordon MacKenzie, general manager of the Radisson Blu Hotel in Doha, told OBG. “That is what we should learn from 2022, and we should make every effort to develop this reputation around the world.”
Family Entertainment & Heritage
Family and urban entertainment is another core tourism subsector in the 2030 strategy. As the state’s key leisure infrastructure continues to develop, including a number of super-regional malls and large leisure projects, Doha is expected to attract a growing number of visitors as well as QA stopover transit passengers and cruise arrivals taking advantage of the recently introduced visa schemes. The family and urban entertainment segment is primarily oriented toward families from neighbouring markets, who tend to visit over the weekend and certain holidays, when high-end hotels discount their room rates.
QTA is focused on making existing assets more attractive and accessible by supporting the growing number of mega malls – including Al Hazm Mall and Doha Festival City – and diversifying the range of family entertainment offerings. At the same time, the authority is taking steps to address any gaps in the market by championing an ongoing tendering process to convert Doha Exhibition Centre into a family-themed entertainment centre.
QTA is also working closely with Qatar Museums to develop the country’s cultural heritage and provide tourists with more information on – and access to – archaeological sites. QTA is closely involved with Qatar Museums on the development of a series of historic villages in the north of the country, as well as the development plans for various sites, which include the addition of visitor centres and other services at UNESCO World Heritage site Al Zubarah, for example. The cultural segment is a key area of focus, as articulated in the revised strategy. Assets include the Orientalist Museum and the National Museum of Qatar, which is currently under construction.
Though Qatar boasts attractions like sports facilities, luxury malls, hotels, and sophisticated conference and exhibition centres, the country also needs to overcome certain challenges that are slowing growth in the tourism sector. The most prominent issue is the ongoing blockade, which has had a negative impact on visitor numbers.
However, Qatar’s government has taken critical steps towards improving this situation, and it appears likely that the country will be able to overcome the current period of uncertainty.
A recent study by the Tourism Committee of Qatar Chamber identified some of the obstacles, including a shortage of entertainment venues; weak promotion of Qatar as a tourist destination overseas; higher prices for QA tickets compared with other airlines; delays in issuance of tourist visas; over-reliance on business tourism and Gulf families for hotel occupancy; complicated procedures for getting clearance from the MoI to open new hotel facilities; and higher prices for tourist services in some hotels.
The study’s recommendations include developing tourist spots such as Khor Al Udaid with more hotels and recreational facilities, streamlining civil defence procedures in licensing new hotels, hosting cultural and artistic events throughout the year to attract more tourists, coordinating with travel agencies to encourage them to better target their offers at tourists, and focusing more on therapeutic and sports tourism.
Medical tourism is a potential growth segment, with the opening of several resorts considered relaxing locations for recovering patients, a potential fillip for this untapped industry. Developing the segment further, however, will require enhanced equipment and personnel in all medical facilities.
To develop a better sense of where to prioritise investment, QTA has been driving an initiative aimed at collecting higher-quality data on visitor source markets and purpose of travel. While it publishes quarterly reports that include hotel performance and arrivals data sourced from the MoI, the latter has historically been limited to data about the nationality of visitors, leaving out information on the purpose of visit and source market for arrivals.
An online visitor survey being rolled out by QTA will seek to connect arrivals data to hotel data, travel purpose and in-country visitor experience with solicited feedback from a cross-section of non-resident visitors at time of departure from HIA. The results will be used to inform QTA planning by providing data concerning tourism activities and general levels of satisfaction with those activities, as well as money spent in different areas of the sector.
A similar research process, in which QTA mapped out tourists’ experiences from the time they plan a trip to the country through to booking and arrival in Qatar, led QTA to establish tourism information centres and kiosks at the Abu Samra crossing, in the transit area of HIA and at Doha Port.
The outlook for Qatar’s tourism sector is promising. The country is becoming a more popular travel destination, and a wide range of tourism products, services and infrastructure is scheduled to come on-line to drive growth in the next five years. The impact of falling oil prices and reduced corporate demand is nevertheless expected to persist in the short term, and the tourism sector is not likely to make a full recovery until 2018.
While the blockade has led to some short-term challenges, it has allowed the country to look further afield to attract a more diverse range of tourists than it has in the past. By broadening its tourism base, Qatar has been able to offer an increasingly cosmopolitan series of tourism offerings.
Meanwhile, in the hospitality segment, a faster increase in supply than demand is likely to maintain pressure on occupancy rates in hotels and serviced apartments before an expected long-term rebound supported by growing demand with the approach of the World Cup (see analysis).
Expanding and diversifying the industry will be the key areas of focus in 2018, aided by important steps taken to synchronise policy at the government level. With the country investing heavily in tourism as a hedge against possible future oil price fluctuations, the sector is well positioned to meet its targets.