The 2016 slump in oil prices led the Qatari government to identify industries with high growth potential in a diversified economy. Tourism was among the sectors prioritised due to the opportunities presented by infrastructure investment and major events such as the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
The sector’s promising performance comes amid the backdrop of a regional blockade led by Saudi Arabia and several other Arab countries. Efforts to diversify source markets – especially important as prior to the blockade tourism in Qatar was dominated by travellers from the GCC – have also led to an increased number of visitors from countries such as India, Russia and China. Altogether, these factors bode well for the future of the tourism sector in Qatar.
Structure & Oversight
In November 2018 the Qatar National Tourism Council (QNTC) was created to replace the Qatar Tourism Authority as the government agency mandated to implement Qatar’s two-part National Tourism Sector Strategy (QNTSS), which launched in 2014. The second stage of the QNTSS, known as the Next Chapter, was introduced in September 2017. Together, the two stages of the strategy provide the framework for the sector’s development and outline the government’s objectives, such as attracting 5.6m visitors by 2023, of which 67% should be leisure tourists. The authorities are also targeting non-GCC visitors and hope to boost their numbers to 69% of total travellers.
The QNTC was created after the government decided to develop a new structure for the sector to coordinate, consolidate and focus the efforts of officials and stakeholders. The new tourism council’s main tasks are attracting investment, strategic planning and sector regulation. The division will have oversight of three tourism offices being developed: the Qatar Tourism Promotion Company, responsible for international marketing; the Qatar Tourism Development Company, responsible for facilitating the growth of major tourism products; and the Qatar Business Events Company, responsible for managing corporate events and the venues they are held in.
The QNTC’s board of directors, which is chaired by Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, is responsible for creating the policy and regulatory conditions to grow the tourism sector to help diversify the economy. Also on the board are the minister of finance as vice-chairman, the secretary-general and assistant secretary-general of the QNTC, the minister of culture and sports, the minister of transport and communications, the minister of commerce and industry, the director of the Government Communications Office, the chair of Katara Hospitality, as well as two representatives from the private sector.
Given that tourism was dominated by visitors from Qatar’s GCC neighbours prior to June 2017, the blockade imposed that month served as a catalyst for change in the sector. According to the QNTC, total visitor numbers fell by one-third between the first half of 2017 and the same period of 2018, from 1.5m to 945,000. Much of the decrease was attributed to a lack of GCC visitors, with arrivals from the region falling by 84% to just over 100,000. Other Arab countries followed suit, with visitors from this region falling by around 45%.
The government responded to the blockade with renewed efforts to attract visitors from diversified source markets. Officials liberalised entry visa requirements to facilitate tourist arrivals by launching an Electronic Travel Authorisation system; a 96-hour transit visa; an online platform to process visa applications; and visa waivers for nationals of more than 80 countries. As a result of these measures, in its latest Visa Openness Report published in September 2018, the UN World Tourism Organisation ranked Qatar the eighth most open country in terms of visa facilitation, up from 177th in 2014. New tourists from diversified markets taking advantage of liberalised visa procedures and extended transit visa periods are expected to create new revenue for local businesses, as shown by a 4.4% increase in travel and tourism spending throughout 2017.
Contribution To GDP
The government announced plans to boost investment in travel and tourism infrastructure, from roads to seaside resorts. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), travel and tourism investment in Qatar will double in the coming decade, from QR6.2bn ($1.7bn) in 2017 to QR14.5bn ($4bn) by 2028. The organisation expects a similar increase in the contribution of travel and tourism to GDP during the same period, from QR59.6bn ($16.4bn) to QR133.5bn ($36.7bn). The higher levels of travel and tourism investment are part of a major capital expenditure programme in the run-up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In 2018 major development projects accounted for 45.8% of total government expenditure, or QR92.8bn ($25.5bn). Many of the projects are for both the World Cup and to improve infrastructure supporting the wider economy.
Qatar’s favourable trade balance will receive a further boost from rising tourism spending. The WTTC forecasts that visitor exports are expected to grow by 9.1% per year over the next 10 years, up from QR44.6bn ($12.2bn), or 14.3% of total exports, in 2017. With oil and gas exports accounting for 80% of budget revenue, tourism exports could help offset decreasing hydrocarbons prices.
According to the Planning and Statistics Authority (PSA), over 1.8m people visited Qatar in 2018. Visitors largely came from Asia and Europe, with 41% coming from the former and 29% from the latter. A further 11% visited the country from GCC countries, 9% from the Americas, 7% from other Arab countries and 3% from Africa. Total visitor arrivals were down from the 2.3m visitors in 2017 and 2.8m in 2016 reported by the QNTC. “Qatar should be a year-round destination and we need a creative approach to achieving this. The summer months is the period when European families for example travel the most,” Hamad Al Mulla, CEO of Katara Hospitality, told OBG. “We need to take advantage of our central location and connectivity to attract more arrivals throughout the year from Europe, but also from Asia and even the Americas,” he said.
Qatar enjoys the highest share of business travel spending in the GCC, a strength authorities are hoping to leverage for future growth. There is reason for this optimism – according to the WTTC, business travel spending is expected to increase by 9.1% annually to QR47.4bn ($13bn) in 2028. Maintaining the lead will not be without challenges, however, as Jose Vicente, CEO of the Doha Exhibition and Convention Centre (DECC), noted that the blockade has given rise to the perception of Qatar as a somewhat “isolated market” for hospitality and business events.
Hassan Abdulrahman Al Ibrahim, assistant secretary-general of the QNTC, told local press in 2018 that the blockade “without a doubt” hampered performance in 2017. However, officials have also recognised the positive effects of recent visa reforms in diversifying source markets and stimulating the sector, which, according to investment bank Alpen Capital, is predicted to attract 2.9m visitors by 2022.
With FIFA guidelines mandating that Qatar have 60,000 hotel rooms by 2022 in order to host the World Cup, the development of new hotels is in full swing. In 2017 Qatar’s hotel supply stood at 22,461 hotel rooms and 2706 service apartments.
According to an Alpen Capital report, Qatar is set to open around 21 new hotels by 2021, the majority of which will be four- and five-star establishments.
However, there are some concerns about expanding the hotel industry at a time when occupancy levels are still lower than before the blockade, as additional hotels increase competition, and put pressure on prices and margins already squeezed by losses incurred by the lack of GCC visitors. Hotel construction risked “weakening prices in the sector,” Gordon MacKenzie, general manager of the Radisson Blu hotel in Doha, told OBG.
As such, it is important for the QNTC to balance the requirements for hosting an event such as the World Cup with the council’s mandate to generate tourist inflows and create opportunities for the hospitality sector. “Clearly defining Qatar’s unique selling points and vision as a destination will help the country as it looks to develop new markets and tap transit passengers,” MacKenzie told OBG.
To this end, the QNTC is working with private companies in both the construction and hospitality sectors, as well as with government institutions such as the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy – which oversees mega-projects related to the 2022 FIFA World Cup – to implement policies conducive to growth and improved experience. Hospitality research firm Olery upgraded Qatar’s hotel experience ranking from first in the GCC to first in the wider Middle East in its most recent annual report on guest experiences, published in April 2018.
Qatar is dominated by four- and five-star hotels, which make up around 70% of hotel stock. Average occupancy of all hotels hit 59% in November 2018, down from 63% in 2016. According to official figures from the PSA, the three-star segment had the highest occupancy rate at 71% in November 2018, followed by four-star hotels with an average occupancy rate of 61%, five-star hotels at 56%, and one- and two-star hotels at 55%. Moving forward, the three-star segment promises to be a growth area for the sector as it works to accommodate travellers for the World Cup and beyond.
The sector is slowly adjusting to the loss of the GCC as a key source market. Although the initial disruption was costly to the industry, the subsequent recovery in visitor numbers bodes well for the future of tourism. In 2018 the QNTC opened six representative offices in three of the world’s largest visitor source markets: India, China and Russia. As a result of these connections, visitors from India in 2018 were up 20% over the previous year ( representing an additional 66,953 people), arrivals from China were up by 38% (+17,361) and visitors from Russia grew by 123% (+12,157). Indian and Chinese tourists – totalling 400,661 and 62,998, respectively – ranked first and third among Qatar’s top-10, non-GCC source markets in 2018, and Russia ranked first in terms of annual growth. By dedicating promotional resources to China and India the QNTC is aiming to capture a share of the first and second fastest-growing outbound tourism markets in the world, respectively. Outbound tourism from China is expected to reach 157m by 2020, according to China’s National Bureau of Statistics, up from 149.7m in 2018. Similarly, India is expected to see around 50m outbound tourists by 2020, and numbers have been growing by an average of 10% to 12% per year since 2011.
In China efforts by the QNTC, which has headquarters in Beijing, satellite offices in Shanghai and Guangzhou, and which closely coordinates with local tourism stakeholders, were rewarded with Qatar receiving Approved Destination Status (ADS) by the Chinese authorities. ADS is granted through bilateral government agreements and only ADS-certified travel agencies are permitted to promote and organise tourist groups from China and market their destination in China for tourism purposes.
When it comes to India, the QNTC benefits from the convenience of relatively short flights between Qatar and thirteen major Indian cities.
Late 2018 marked the launch of the global tourism campaign “Qatar. Qurated for You” to highlight the country’s tailored tourism offerings to 15 priority markets. As part of the campaign the QNTC will work with platforms such as TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet, as well as television networks such as CNN, to run promotional materials in a range of languages, including Arabic, English, French, Italian, German, Russian, Turkish and Mandarin. “Qurated is more than an advertising campaign,” Rashed Al Qurese, chief marketing and promotion officer of the QNTC, told local press. “We have closely examined what we can offer as a destination to bring into focus the essence of the Qatar experience, and how it can be tailored to each of our visitor segments.”
Similarly, in 2017 the QNTC developed Tawash, an online specialist programme designed to provide partner travel professionals with in-depth knowledge of Qatar in order to market the destination persuasively to their clients. More than 10,000 travel agents have enrolled in the programme, which is available in seven languages. “This initiative is designed to complement QNTC’s trade-oriented and awareness-building activities in key targeted regional and international markets,” Al Qurese told local media. “The training course serves to create a team of accredited destination experts to give Qatar extra reach and enhance QNTC’s efforts at the grassroots level.”
Another part of the country’s tourism promotion efforts is the organisation of familiarisation trips, which have hosted more than 1500 travel agents, 500 media officials and 170 social media influencers.
Meetings & Events
According to the WTTC, business travel spending accounts for 39.6% of total tourism spending and is expected to increase by 9.1% between 2018 and 2028, from QR19.9bn ($5.5bn) to QR47.4bn ($13bn). As such, the QNTC has made meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) an integral component of its strategy to attract 5.6m visitors by 2023, and the country has invested heavily to solidify its position as a regional destination for MICE. In 2018 Qatar won the rights to host six major business events to be held between 2019 and 2022. The country is also emerging as an attractive destination for modern luxury weddings, with six Indian weddings being held in Qatar during the first quarter of 2019.
Qatar has been building up its MICE infrastructure in order to host events on a larger scale. In November 2015 Qatar opened the $631.8m DECC. The 47,700-sq-metre venue has five exhibition halls with a total capacity for 3500 delegates, as well as 18 meeting rooms. Doha is also home to the Qatar National Convention Centre, which opened in December 2011 and includes 40,000 sq metres worth of exhibition space spread across nine halls.
NICHE SEGMENTS & DIVERSIFICATION: Qatar’s successful bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup highlights the potential for the country to enter niche segments, most notably sports tourism. The tournament alone is expected to attract over 1.5m spectators. In the build-up to the tournament, which will last six weeks, investment is being channelled into the development of tourism infrastructure to accommodate the major influx of tourists, as well as providing opportunities for entertainment and sightseeing. The authorities were quick to signal their intent to use the tournament as a spearhead for long-term diversification efforts, as demonstrated by the recent thorough overhaul of the tourism sector.
Cruise tourism is also an important niche market. The government has made plans to convert a fleet of cruise liners into giant floating hotels to house 40,000 football fans during the 2022 FIFA World Cup. For the 2018/19 cruise season, which is set to conclude in April 2019, Doha Port is on track to receive 42 cruise ships carrying more than 140,000 visitors. This will be more than double the previous season, which welcomed 65,675 visitors. Located in the heart of the cultural district, home to the Museum of Islamic Art and in close proximity to traditional markets, Doha Port is well situated to host cruise tourists.
Channelling the government’s diversification efforts, the QNTC is also partnering with local stakeholders to develop sustainable winter tourism, offering experiences such as desert safari packages and luxury camping for families along the country’s coastline. One avenue to enhance visitors’ coastal and desert experiences – a key objective of the Next Chapter of QNTSS – is the Al Enna project at Khor Al Adaid. Al Enna is the initial phase of a five-year plan to develop the region, which entails the development of roads, beaches, accommodation and camp infrastructure, as well as the region’s commercial sector.
While the economic embargo placed on Qatar by Arab countries has triggered a slowdown in the number of regional arrivals, the efforts of authorities to accelerate visa reforms and broaden the reach of tourism campaigns have paid dividends.
The striking increase in arrivals from Russia, China and India has proven the value of the reforms, and these source markets, as well as increased international interest in the country in the build up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup, look set to underpin growth moving forward. Along with these developments, the QNTC will continue to expand the country’s business, leisure and entertainment offerings while also working to enhance Qatar’s international profile as it seeks to attract up to 5.6m annual visitors by 2023.