Tourism is one of the most promising prospects for growth as Qatar aims to shift its economy from one dependent on hydrocarbons to one that is more diversified and sustainable, and less susceptible to commodity price fluctuations. Between 2020 and 2030 tourism is expected to add over 100,000 jobs and contribute over $20.3bn to GDP. In October 2019 the capital city of Doha was forecast to have the fastest-growing visitor arrivals among major cities between 2018 and 2025, according to Euromonitor, with visitor arrivals predicted to increase by 104% over that period, from 2.2m to 4.5m. Relaxed visa regulations – which have made Qatar one of the most open destinations for tourists in the world – have been central to the success, as well as marketing campaigns and infrastructure development.
Wider regulatory reforms and investment initiatives seek to ensure that the sector continues to grow after the country hosts the 2022 FIFA World Cup, an event that is expected to draw 1.5m spectators. While much of the attention has been focused on the headline event, the country experienced sustained growth across a range of segments, from cruises to business tourism, and arts and culture.
The tourism industry is overseen, regulated and coordinated by the Qatar National Tourism Council (QNTC), a entity that was created in November 2018 as part of efforts to restructure the sector. The QNTC’s work builds upon that of its predecessor, the Qatar Tourism Authority, but the new body has a wider mandate that includes coordinating, consolidating and focusing the efforts of officials and the various sector stakeholders. The council’s main responsibilities are attracting investment, strategic planning and sector regulation. The QNTC does this through three offices under its supervision: the Qatar Tourism Promotion Company, which is responsible for marketing Qatar as a destination; the Qatar Tourism Development Company, which facilitates major tourism projects in coordination with the private sector; and the Qatar Business Events Company (QBEC), which manages and promotes corporate events such as business exhibitions and conferences.
The QNTC’s board of directors features a diverse set of representatives tasked with creating the policy and regulatory conditions to enable the tourism industry to grow, and ensure synergy between the government and private sector. Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al Thani, prime minister and minister of the interior, serves as chairman of the board and works with Ali Sharif Al Emadi, the minister of finance and board vice-chairman, as well as the minister of culture and sports, the minister of commerce and industry, the chair of government-owned hotel developer Katara Hospitality, the director of the Government Communications Office and two representatives from the private sector.
The QNTC’s work is guided by the two-part Qatar National Tourism Sector Strategy (QNTSS), which was launched in 2014 and sets out a roadmap for developing tourism into a major non-oil economic contributor. The strategy aims to develop a diverse offering of tourism products and services throughout the country, and enhance the calendar of yearround festivals and events.
Increasing tourism’s appeal is an economic necessity both because of the need to diversify away from hydrocarbons, but also because of geopolitical events. The regional blockade against Qatar led by Saudi Arabia and several other Arab countries since 2017 resulted in a drop in arrivals from the GCC, jump-starting Qatar’s move towards diversifying visitor source markets. QNTC’s representative offices in target markets including the US, the UK, France, Italy, Turkey, Russia, India and China have played an important role in marketing the country to travel agencies and potential visitors around the world in recent years. In late 2018 Qatar launched its first global marketing campaign, “Qatar. Qurated for You”, to highlight the country’s diverse and niche tourism offerings to 15 priority markets including Russia, India, China, Turkey, the UK, the US, Italy, Singapore and Germany. It runs in eight languages across various media platforms including television, print and social media. With an aim to reach 250m people, the campaign introduces travellers to a variety of authentic experiences, such as cultural sites, new art galleries and museums that showcase Qatar’s history and culture.
Festivals and other annual gatherings are an important part of developing a diverse calendar of events for residents and visitors alike. QNTC works with partners across the public and private sectors to create events in aviation, hospitality and retail. Some of the largest events include Shop Qatar, which takes place in January, the Doha Jewellery and Watch Exhibition in February, Qatar International Food Festival in March and Summer in Qatar.
Tourism arrivals expanded by 17% in 2019, with the number of international visitors rising to over 2.1m, according to the QNTC. Efforts to diversify source markets have been successful, with 38% of tourists during this period arriving from Asia, 32% from Europe and 11% from the GCC. This marks a notable change from 2016 – before the blockade – when GCC tourists comprised half of all arrivals.
Since August 2017 the government has announced visa-free entry for citizens of over 80 countries, including Croatia, Portugal, Turkey, Bolivia, Lebanon, Georgia and Panama. The liberalised visa policy, which introduced an electronic travel authorisation system, a 96-hour transit visa, an online platform to process visa applications and visa waivers, has had a notable impact on arrivals. Passenger arrivals at Doha’s Hamad International Airport increased by 12.4% in 2019, from 34.5m in 2018 to 38.8m – the highest number of passengers served since operations began in 2014. The reforms helped make Qatar the most open country in the Middle East and the eighth-most open in the world for tourists, according to the UN World Tourism Organisation’s “Visa Openness Report”, published in September 2018.
Tourism’s direct contribution to GDP was QR22.5bn ($6.2bn), or 3.3% of GDP, in 2018, according to a May 2019 report from the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), with the organisation forecasting this figure to have reached QR23.4bn ($6.4bn) in 2019. The total direct and indirect contribution to the economy was expected to reach QR67.3bn ($18.5bn) in 2019, and rise by 7.8% per year through to 2029, when it is forecast to climb to QR141.2bn ($38.8bn) and account for 11.4% of GDP.
The country generated QR47.2bn ($13bn) in visitor exports in 2018, with the WTTC predicting this figure would grow by 4.4% in 2019. As of 2018, 194,500 people were employed in the tourism sector – 9.5% of the total – and that figure was forecast to increase by 3% to 200,000 (9.7% of total employment) in 2019 and 301,000 (13.6% of total employment) by 2029.
While growth in arrivals and associated sector income was expected to continue in 2020, the nearteam outlook is being revised due to the global spread of Covid-19 in the first quarter of the year. Many countries have taken measures to contain the outbreak, which is affecting international travel. By the close of March, Qatar was only accepting nationals into the country but allowing other nationalities to continue transiting through Hamad International Airport. The flag carrier, Qatar Airways, suspended a number of its regular routes.
In 2019 Hamad International Airport added eight connections to its network: Davao, the Philippines; Rabat, Morocco; Izmir, Turkey; Gaborone, Botswana; Langkawi, Malaysia; Mogadishu, Somalia; Malta; and Lisbon, Portugal. The airport also added cargo connections with Istanbul, Turkey; New York City, the US; and Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Passenger numbers for Qatar Airways grew by 14.3% in FY 2018/19, which ended in March, and revenues were up by 14%, reaching $13.2bn. Nonetheless, the airline posted a net loss of $639m, up from $69m the previous financial year, as it dealt with the effects of the blockade on airspace, higher fuel costs and foreign exchange rate fluctuations.
With a recent trend of more tourists flying in from more destinations, Qatar has moved to increase its hotel supply. The 2022 FIFA World Cup brings added incentives, with FIFA guidelines mandating that Qatar have 60,000 hotel rooms in order to host the event. There were 27,288 hotel rooms across 132 establishments as of September 2019, and the country is aiming to have 77,000 by 2022.
Qatar had an average hotel occupancy rate of 64% in the fourth quarter of 2019, up from 59% year-onyear. The country added a total of 1050 rooms during the fourth quarter of 2019 alone, with hotels such as the Park Hyatt Doha in Msheireb Downtown and Doubletree by Hilton Doha opening in December 2019. The Hilton Doha The Pearl Residences opened in early January 2020 and features 414 rooms in 38 storeys. In addition to this, eight new hotels and resorts are slated to open in 2020, including the Pullman Hotel, the Zulal Wellness Resort and Plaza Doha, a five-star hotel and serviced apartment complex. If all projects are finished on time, Qatar will have 34,000 hotel rooms by the end of the year.
While a healthy increase in hotel capacity bodes well ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, it is likely that hotels alone will not be sufficient to cater to the 1.5m guests, and as such organisers are looking to other options such as cruise ships for support. Cruise vessels will be converted to giant floating hotels to house up to 40,000 people during the tournament. To this end, in November 2019 the government signed an agreement with global cruise line MSC Cruises to charter two vessels with a combined 4000 cabins that will accommodate fans.
These efforts come as cruise tourism expands in its own right, boosted by the new 6000-sq-metre temporary passenger terminal at Doha Port opened in October 2019. The new terminal will remain in operation until the Doha Port’s expansion is completed in 2022. During the 2019/20 cruise season, which began in the fourth quarter of 2019, 74 vessels are scheduled to dock, a 66% increase from the previous season. Previously, the QNTC expected over 186,000 passengers during the 2019/20 season, up from 140,000 in 2018/19, although these projections are likely to be tempered by the spread of Covid-19 and the resulting slowdown in international travel in early 2020. Visitors from a wide range of countries, including the US, Germany, Italy, the UK, Russia and Mexico, visit Qatar on cruise ships, and in many cases visitors from these source markets have been growing. During the 2018/19 season the number of Russian arrivals increased by 257%, followed by German (144%), Italian (93%) and UK (22.5%) nationals, according to the QNTC.
As cruise arrivals grow, the authorities are also looking to international sports and athletic events to help raise Qatar’s profile and establish the country as the sports capital of the Middle East. Qatar hosts more than 80 sport events each year, and has notably hosted the 2010 International Association of Athletics Federations World Indoor Championships, the 2011 Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup, the 2015 International Boxing Association World Boxing Championship, the 2019 World Athletics Championships, the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup and the first ever World Beach Games that same year. Looking to the future, the country will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the 2023 International Swimming Federation World Swimming Championship.
Culture & Heritage
While sports events have taken centre stage, the QNTC is also focused on protecting and promoting Qatar’s cultural heritage. Modern human settlement in the country dates back to the 8th century when it was a centre for pearl trading in the region. “Qatar has around 2280 heritage buildings and over 5200 different archaeological sites,” Ali Al Humaidi, advisor to the CEO of the Qatar Museums (QM) government authority, told OBG. QM is developing sites such as the Al Zubarah Fort, a UNESCO World Heritage site, with plans to create exhibitions and activities around the fort and ancient city. Additionally, QM is working to catalogue and date some 5000 more archaeological sites before they are opened to tourists.
QM currently has seven museums and galleries, either completed or under construction, under its remit. Many are critically acclaimed for their collections on Arab architecture and Islamic culture, history and identity, including the 40,000-sq-metre National Museum of Qatar. The facade of the building features curved discs representing crystal clusters found in the Qatari desert known as desert roses. Inside, the museum has 11 galleries extending 2.7 km organised into three main themes that cover Qatar’s human and natural history from ancient to modern times. Opening in March 2019, the museum welcomed more than 132,000 visitors in its first month.
Business & Events
Although there have been increasing numbers of leisure tourists in recent years, business travellers continue to be the bedrock of the industry. Strong growth in the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) segment is expected in the coming decade. According to a 2018 report by the WTTC, business travel spending in Qatar was forecast to rise by 9.1% annually from QR19.9bn ($5.5bn) in 2018 to QR47.4bn ($13bn) in 2028. Business tourism spending accounted for 39.6% of the total in 2018.
The number of exhibitions grew by an average of 36% per year between 2012 and 2017, with Qatar hosting 150 business exhibitions and conferences in 2019, according to the QNTC. The segment has been successful in attracting higher numbers of participants. The Doha Jewellery and Watches exhibition, the third-largest such event in the world, has been hosted in Qatar since 2004. The event attracted 30,000 visitors over six days in February 2019, up by 28% from 2018. The marketing done by QBEC has been a key factor to this segment’s success, and Qatar was awarded the hosting rights for eight major business events to be held between 2019 and 2023.
Many major international conferences and exhibitions are hosted at the Doha Exhibition and Convention Centre (DECC), a 90,689-sq-metre venue in the heart of the capital’s business district. In addition to business events, the DECC regularly hosts weddings and concerts, and it will also be used for 2022 FIFA World Cup-related events during the tournament. Between 2016 and 2018 the DECC hosted around 90 conferences and exhibitions, attracting approximately 12,000 exhibitors and 1.5m visitors.
This segment is also likely to be impacted in 2020, however, as a multitude of high-profile international events and flights have been either cancelled or delayed around the world due to Covid-19.
While Qatar’s sports, cultural and business tourism offerings are well known, the authorities are looking to increase awareness about its medical tourism potential. The country boasts one of the best-ranked health care systems in the world, ranking third in the MENA region, according to UK think tank Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index 2019. Medical tourists are drawn to the country’s high-quality hospitals and modern facilities, such as the $7.9bn Qatar Foundation-funded Sidra Medical and Research Centre, a women and children’s hospital, and medical education and biomedical research centre that opened in 2018. The 400-bed facility has 50 clinics in a number of specialities including paediatrics, obstetrics and gynaecology. In its first 10 months of operation, the hospital provided care to around 120,000 people and performed 2700 surgeries and 3000 medical procedures.
Qatar’s tourism landscape continues to shift as the sector diversifies and expands, both in terms of offerings and source markets. Efforts aimed at attracting visitors from a wider range of countries, international marketing campaigns and liberalised visa reforms have helped the sector maintain momentum despite the blockade placed on Qatar by some of its Arab neighbours.
Growing numbers of leisure tourists are visiting Qatar, drawn to the country’s cultural, entertainment, retail and sports offerings. Even so, business tourism continues to be an important driver, with the number of MICE events expanding as the country develops its conference facilities. The 2022 FIFA World Cup will be an opportunity for the country to show off its culture, heritage and architecture to not only the 1.5m fans in attendance, but the 3.4bn-strong television audience as well. It will be necessary for tourism authorities to leverage this attention to encourage individuals from near and far to visit for the country’s diverse set of offerings.