By Karen Leigh
Will the euphoria of the 2022 World Cup host Qatar rub off on its GCC neighbours’ tourism sector? Arabian Business finds out.
While Qatar may have landed the 2022 World Cup, but its impact on tourism infrastructure — hotels, transportation and recreation for the thousands of football fans pouring in from all corners of the globe — will be a massive opportunity for its GCC neighbours with a boon in tourism and interconnectivity through road and rail networks.
“This will be the World Cup of the Middle East as opposed to the World Cup of just Qatar,” said Mike Scully, managing director at Seven Tides Hospitality, which owns Movenpick Ibn Battuta Gate and three upcoming Movenpicks in Dubai.
An offshoot of Qatar’s landing the Cup will likely be an oversupply of visitors spilling into accommodation in the UAE and other GCC countries.
“It depends what Qatar is going to build – building just hotels isn’t enough,” said Mark Reed, general manager at Arabian Pacific Travel and Tourism. “They’d need the rest of the infrastructure as well — people have to be able to get around, they need entertainment and things like the fan fests — these events encourage people to socialize and there’s alcohol involved, which is an issue for Qatar. What Qatar needs to do is provide the whole thing instead of just the great hotel facilities.”
The healthy party scene in the UAE will be a deciding factor for many fans flying in from Europe and Africa. “Football supporters are into having a good time and having a drink,” Reed said. “People have come to expect a lot from their experiences in [previous Cups held in] Japan and Germany. A lot of people will base themselves in places like Dubai and Abu Dhabi and fly into Qatar for games.”
Dubai, he added, would be the GCC’s tourism “winner” during the Cup — “it has the weather, the transportation infrastructure, the hotels, a huge number of restaurants and bars. It will have a knock-on effect. As long as Dubai keep its prices competitive it’ll do very well.”
One thing that could stymie the flood of tourism money is, Reed added, the fact that most Dubai residents are expats who will be able to provide free accommodation for friends and relatives. “All they’d need to do then is purchase flights to Qatar and match tickets,” Reed said.
Bahrain, with luxury beach resorts like the Ritz-Carlton and a short commute to Doha, will be the UAE’s key competitor in the GCC. “They’re very westernised and have very well-appointed hotels — they’re competitive,” Reed said.
Hotel rates will remain high during the Cup, save for special offers from tourism companies. “I don’t think anything will come down because with so much competition it’ll be too hard to make money,” Reed said. “The winners will be the people who offer the value for money.”
He pointed to Emirates Airline’s sponsorship of pricey packages for the 2010 Cup, held in South Africa. “They were ridiculous in price so they didn’t sell ridiculous amounts,” he said. “In Dubai, the Ibis and other three-star and value hotels are going to do very well.”
“GCC countries are football-crazy,” said Sunil D’Souza, Kanoo’s country manager for the UAE and Oman. “It’s an international event taking place in this part of the world. The local stock market was up 20 percent off the back of this news. And closer to the event this will attract more and more people.”
According to the Dubai Tourism and Commerce Authority, the emirate — the GCC’s tourism hub — had ten million visitors in 2010, with the number of hotel rooms climbing to 64,179. “From a regular summer period in Dubai, I’d say you’ll have a 50 percent rise in tourism that year,” Reed said.
Shortly after the bid announcement, hospitality industry sources in Qatar had said the country was planning to have 90,000 hotel rooms in place by kickoff.
“If you look at the infrastructure, [officials] are saying that 90,000 hotel rooms are needed in total by 2015 — and Dubai already has the capacity to handle a lot of that.” It and other GCC states “will provide logistical support for the event.”
The biggest group of travellers could be local residents. “The primary mode of traffic will be people within the region, because for people in the Middle East and GCC, the national sport is football,” D’Souza said. “That will involve a lot of travel and a lot of local services being used.”
“They might be intrigued, especially if there’s corporate tickets,” Reed said. “Obviously the UAE has quite a big football league they’re putting money into. So maybe the interest will be there by 2022.”
For foreigners, travel agencies such as Kanoo will also be putting together packages including airfare from Europe, accommodation in cities like Dubai, and transport to and from Qatar for matches.
“We are also planning special arrangements for youth to travel in groups and share hotel arrangements — working out packages that include flights transfers.”
The aviation industry, particularly GCC-based airlines like Qatar Airways and Emirates, also stand to benefit.
“We have plans on the ground to transport a huge number of people from [the UAE] to Doha — the flight is less than an hour,” D’Souza said, a negligible distance compared to past World Cup locations. For example, “when matches were held in Germany [in 2006], it was a longer flight to England.”
“The World Cup in Doha will be a great opportunity for the region,” said Peter Baumgartner, Etihad’s chief commercial officer. “There is no doubt it will attract a significant number of visitors not only to Doha but throughout the region.”
“Thousands of loyal fans are expected to travel into the region to support their team and be part of the action,” said an Emirates spokesman. “These football fans will ensure a spike in passenger numbers to Qatar, as well as the wider Middle East.”
Scully pointed to Bahrain’s hosting of the 2010 Grand Prix and the large number of spectators who commuted from Dubai to watch the event as an indicator of how FIFA’s much-larger Cup — arguably the biggest sporting event in the world behind the Olympics — could spur local tourism.
And Bahrain and Saudi Arabia stand to see increased connectivity should the transportation infrastructure improvements detailed in Qatar’s official bid proposal to FIFA come to fruition. A long-distance rail network to be completed by 2019 would link Doha with the Bahraini capital of Manama in less than an hour, at speeds of 350km/h. The second high-speed rail line, for completion in 2017, would connect Qatar and Saudi.
A motorway between Bahrain and Qatar is also part of a long-gestating $20bn transportation expansion plan, to be completed by 2015, which, the proposal said, “will complete an extensive national expressway network linked to Saudi Arabia and other GCC member states such as the UAE and Oman.”
In short, Scully said, “this is such an enormous event… this will have a huge impact in the region.”