Interview: Qatar's tourism chief Issa bin Mohammed Al Mohannadi

It may be late to the party in attracting international tourists, but Qatar Tourism Authority chairman Issa bin Mohammed Al Mohannadi says the industry is vital as the country looks to diversify its economy
By Courtney Trenwith
Sat 07 Jun 2014 01:49 AM

Imagine lying back in a sun bed slightly sunken in yellow sand and taking in the flurry of activity along the beach, or walking along a coastal strip buzzing with restaurants and cafes.

It’s a scene typically conjured up in Dubai, or, increasingly, several of the other emirates in the UAE. But picture this in Qatar.

The Gulf state is preparing to launch several “mega” beachside developments as part of its new tourism strategy, which aims to increase visitor numbers from 1.2 million in 2012 to 7 million by 2030.

It also will focus on boosting its cultural, health and wellness, sporting, nature and educational offerings to reduce its reliance on business tourism, which presently accounts for more than 70 percent of visitors.

The strategy aims to naturally reduce that to 36 percent by creating a more vibrant leisure market.

Qatar Tourism Authority chairman Issa bin Mohammed Al Mohannadi says tourism had been identified as a key avenue to diversifying the country’s economy from oil and gas, which have helped propel it onto the international stage but will eventually dry up.

“We have to realise that tourism is an important industry and the fact that oil and gas will not last forever for us, so it’s strategically important to start thinking to diversify the economy,” Al Mohannadi tells Arabian Business.

“We’re focusing heavily on how we can develop the products and boost tourism.”

Tourism presently accounts for less than 1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and the government hopes to increase that to 1.6 percent by 2020 and eventually 3.1 percent by 2030. It also intends for tourist spend to rise from $1.3bn in 2012 to $11bn by 2030, helping to reverse its negative tourism balance of payments (outgoing tourism expenditure surpassed incoming tourist receipts by $400m in 2010).

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“The indications are all positive so far,” Al Mohannadi points out. “We have seen growth of around 14 percent from visitors from the [GCC] region and 9 percent from visitors outside the region. This is triple or quadruple the growth rate of the average worldwide.”

The tourism strategy highlights Qatar’s lack of brand identity abroad, as well as its own misunderstandings of the potential opportunities in tourism. It identifies the need to improve “relatively strict” entry barriers, inadequate regulations that are hindering growth and development and poor investment policies.

The country will focus on several key areas of tourism, utilising its extensive coast and sand dunes and existing world-class museums and art galleries.

“Sun and beach is a great offering in Qatar, we have water surrounding in three directions,” Al Mohannadi says.

“We have miles of beaches that many visitors love to visit and enjoy. The sand dunes in the south are one of the rare dunes where the sands touch the water by itself and that’s a very rare geographical phenomenon that you don’t see elsewhere.

“There are plans as part of the strategy to really utilise and make use of the sun and beach available for us and over the next few years we’ll be launching a number of projects that will be announced soon.”

The first of those, to be revealed later this year, will be a mixed-use development including hotels, residences and entertainment, “similar” to Dubai’s Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR) — which is enormously popular with tourists and residents.

“Part of the sustainability is to start to look at integrated products and integrated products should have residential, hotels, entertainment, food and beverage and so on,” Al Mohannadi says.

“These are integrated products we are focusing on as part of the strategy ... [so] that if you come to this type of destination, the minimum you could spend is two to three days not needing to travel outside.”

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The country’s first island resort is due to open this year. Anantara Doha Island Resort & Spa has been constructed on Banana Island, 11 kilometres from downtown Doha. The island boasts a marina, reefs and a dedicated pier, and nearly 150 villas and suites.

Meanwhile, the new Doha Zoo will span 75 hectares — making it the largest in the region — and include a drive-through safari with environments designed to replicate an African savannah, an Asian jungle and a South American rainforest. It will also include hotels and an educational and conservation discovery centre.

Qatar also expects a chunk of its new visitors to be sports-oriented. It has been awarded the FIFA 2022 World Cup, which already has garnered significant interest in the country, albeit not all positive thanks to concerns about the safety of workers used to build the tournament facilities, and calls for it to be relocated or rescheduled to avoid Qatar’s searing summer heat.

Qatar will host the Handball World Championship in January, on top of present international tennis, MotoGP and golf events.

Shopping also is already a key feature of the country’s tourism landscape and new malls — particularly at the high end of the scale — are popping up every year.

“We have one of the fastest growing retail [sectors in the world], right now in Qatar,” Al Mohannadi says. “These mega retail constructions are contributing strongly to the market.”

But at the heart of the tourism strategy is a pledge to remain “authentic” to the Qatari culture. The reason is two-fold: offering culturally authentic experiences will create a product differentiation, while the government is keen to allay concerns among nationals that their history and traditions will be lost in the new focus on modernisation, development and attracting foreigners.

The strategy document, released in January, repeatedly refers to its focus on “family-friendly tourism” and the government’s assurance that measures will be in place to attract only suitable visitors.

It lists the type of tourists it will focus on attracting as: business tourists; Arab tourists seeking comfort and wellbeing; Arab families seeking leisure and entertainment; wealthy world travellers; ‘authentic discoverers’; and Arab budget-conscious tourists seeking comfort.

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“All tourism promotional efforts to be rolled out will highlight the appeal of Qatar as a destination for families and businessmen, indirectly helping filter the type of tourists who Qatar is looking to attract,” the strategy document says.

“Add to that, the strategy will ensure that rules, regulations and monitoring systems are in place to promote a family-friendly tourism that prohibits and sanctions any excesses or behaviours incompatible with the Qatari culture.”

Exactly what regulations, potentially including dress codes and alcohol restrictions, would be implemented — and their impact on the country’s ability to draw in tourists - remains to be seen.

Visitor numbers at Pearl-Qatar, a privately-owned mixed-use development, fell significantly in 2011 when alcohol was banned at restaurants along the waterfront. Internationally famous chefs, including Jamie Oliver, rapidly closed outlets down due to plummeting revenues and the development has lost much of its initial vibe, although management denies visitor numbers are down.

But Al Mohannadi says Qatar will differentiate itself from other GCC countries by balancing development and tradition.

“It’s the cultural roots we’re proud of and we’re positioning ourselves as a modern destination that’s unique by offering world-class type of services while we are still proud and keep our culture for the people coming to visit the country, and that’s really what makes Qatar a unique destination,” he says. “So you can see a deep cultural type of offering and at the same time you can be in five-star hotels or retail where you shop for the latest brands from different parts of the world.”

The government also is selling the tourism strategy to nationals by highlighting the infrastructure and job benefits.

The new Hamad International Airport opened on April 30 and will eventually triple capacity to 50 million visitors a year.

Coupled with the evolution of Qatar Airways — one of the fastest growing airlines in the world, with 130 destinations — and Doha has become a highly connected city, creating greater potential to draw in tourists as well as provide nationals with cheaper travel options.

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The Doha Metro is under construction and will include four rail lines, connecting all the World Cup stadiums, the airport and major sites in the city.

A port, worth $7.4bn, including a new naval base and economic zone, is being built south of Doha and will become the country’s main port, allowing the existing facility in central Doha to be converted to cater for tourist cruise ships.

Nationals will also benefit from the residential components of mixed-use developments and improved recreational facilities.

“We believe that building the tourism infrastructure is also serving the local nationals and residents,” Al Mohannadi says. “That’s one of the unique things about this industry, you cannot only focus on visitors from outside but whatever you build is built for the people who live in the country as well.

“That type of infrastructure really is key for the development of the country. A lot of these products are open and people benefit from it by having this kind of infrastructure as well as visitors coming from outside.”

Al Mohannadi says the key infrastructure projects will be ready in time for the 2022 World Cup.

An additional 14,000-17,000 hotel rooms will also be built in time for the influx of visitors. An increasing proportion of them are expected to be in the three- and four-star categories, reducing the percentage of five-star accommodation from 43 percent to 34 percent by 2020, and even further to 31 percent by 2030.

But the number of rooms still will not meet the demand expected for the tournament and Al Mohannadi says a raft of ideas — including housing guests on cruise ships off the coast and in home stays, and flying them in from nearby cities such as Dubai – are being considered.

He — also confident the enormous increase in rooms will not overheat the market post-2022.

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“When we launched the strategy we were focusing on how we can create an organic growth for the sector so we don’t end up with white elephants beyond 2022,” Al Mohannadi says.

“We have identified clearly what the demand or the requirements will be for 2022 and we’re working hard to build that capacity.

“Obviously we cannot build to the full capacity for the World Cup but ... we’re exploring all options that could facilitate hosting the event.

“We’ve promised the world to have an amazing tournament and we’re still committed to that promise.”

Tourism also is expected to create 105,000 jobs by 2030 and the government is targeting nationals by creating educational programmes. About 30,000 nationals already have signed up to a recently launched tour guide course.

Al Mohanndi says it is important to have citizens working in the industry to ensure the authentic element. It will also open up entrepreneurial opportunities.

Meanwhile, the Qatar Tourism Authority has opened offices in its key source markets, including the UK, France and – soon — Germany.

It also is marketing the country at trade fairs and travel markets across the world.

But Al Mohannadi says the GCC member states — the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar  — should be working more closely to promote the region as a whole to foreign tourists.

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He supports the formation of a joint ministerial committee — which he says is close to holding its first meeting this year — and a GCC visa that would allow visitors to travel freely between the six states. Qatar already has a joint visa with Oman.

“We have to collaborate. There is no such competition internally because you should compete as a region to attract more traffic to this region,” Al Mohannadi says.

“The UNWTO has issued statistics [that show] more than 1 billion tourists have crossed borders in 2012. The market share for us in the GCC is around 3 percent, so there’s huge potential to increase this number and to attract more people coming to the region compared to the world.

“We should not be competing or coming up with duplicate cities as opposed to having diversification in offerings to one another, so the cooperation between GCC countries is important. That’s the way forward.”

The awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar and the World Expo 2020 to Dubai are already increasing attention on the region, he says.

“We just need to believe that we can do it as a region,” Al Mohanndi says.

“We’re positioned as a region between east and west and north and south [and] the weather is beautiful for most of the year. That connectivity and that geographical position is really an advantage to the GCC to start thinking ‘why not’.

“I believe that the potential for this tourism has not been explored. There is great potential for this region.”

Qatar has come to the tourism party later than other GCC countries. Dubai already receives 11 million visitors a year, while Saudi Arabia is expecting an easy doubling of religious tourists when its $20bn redevelopment of the Grand Mosque at Makkah is completed later this decade, on top of multiple airport and hotel projects.

But the Qatari government appears to be serious, with clear key performance indicators (KPIs) and plans to improve its visa procedures, create the ability to collect statistics, and reform regulations to stimulate investment in the sector.

For Al Mohannadi, it’s obvious: the country’s future lies partly in its ability to foster the tourism sector.

“That’s the option we should be focusing on if we are thinking beyond the oil and gas era,” he says.

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