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Sun 5 Nov 2006 04:00 AM

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Pearl of the Middle East

Not many agents would think about pitching Qatar as a leisure destination, but the Asian Games is set to shed light on the sporting and cultural tourism opportunities the country has to offer

|~|Qatar.gif|~|Qatar is pitching itself as the Middle East’s top sporting and cultural tourism destination and aims to offer 10,000 hotel rooms to cater to increased arrivals by 2010.|~|Qatar has established its position as a key destination for business travel over the last 20 years, thanks to the proliferating oil and gas industry, while quietly observing the development of nearby GCC countries like Bahrain, the UAE and Kuwait.

But the small outcrop nestled in the Arabian Peninsular is now emerging as a key sporting, leisure and educational destination, as well as an additional hub for cross-continental travel.

The decision to host the 15th Asian Games in Doha, marking the first time a Middle Eastern country has been afforded the privilege, has injected a new lease of life into Qatar, and sparked an unprecedented level of construction and development.

Tourism- and sport-focused infrastructure, established in preparation for the games, such as hotels and resorts, football stadiums and athletics tracks, will be complemented with additional cultural and heritage attractions in the new year, laying the foundations for a new era in Qatar’s tourism industry history.

“[Asian Games 2006] will put Qatar on the world map big time, not just in terms of sports tourism, but in every sector,” says Jan-Poul de Boer, director of the Doha-based Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA).

He says that following the games, the new facilities will be used to drive tourism in the sporting sector, while the country continues to grow other sectors of the market; including educational and sophisticated high-end leisure tourism.

“We will try to stimulate the occupancy at the new hotels by organising major sporting events, and we will welcome foreign sporting associations to come over in their winter seasons to use our facilities.”

In 2005, Qatar boasted 2800 hotel rooms in the four- and five-star category, but a further 7000 rooms will be built in the next four years, bringing the total to somewhere in the region of 10,000 rooms.

“The biggest challenge has been to accommodate demand,” says de Boer. “Demand has outstretched supply in the last couple of years in a big way.”

He concedes that Qatar is not, at this stage, a leisure tourism destination, but he says that the arrival of several exclusive projects, including the Sharq Village and Spa, Heritage Village, and The Pearl, will help shape Qatar as an exclusive high-end destination for discerning visitors.

“One of the things we want to preserve is the originality of the destination; we don’t want to be another mass tourism destination, and we’re not in the business of attracting mass markets,” he emphasises.

“We would like to be a destination that focuses on certain niche markets, those being MICE business, sports-related travel, educational and cultural travel, and (to an extent) medical travel.

“We like to think of Qatar becoming a Monaco of the Middle East, or like the Switzerland of Europe; that’s the way were going.”

In 2005, Qatar attracted 730,000 visitors, representing a 22% increase on 2004. According to de Boer, the average stay for visitors is 2.5 days, and 95% of those people come for business-related travel.

“We have set an ambition to have 1.2 million people staying in Qatar [annually] within the next four years. By 2010, we hope these people will stay for around three days, and around 60% will be business travellers, and 40% leisure travellers,” he explains. ||**||Stopover in Qatar|~|Aspire.gif|~|Qatar’s Academy of Sports Excellence, Aspire, is just one facet of Doha’s strategy to rapidly develop its sports infrastructure and appeal to the international sports enthusiast.|~|The Qatari travel industry has recently focused its efforts on exploiting the advantages it has to offer as a regional hub for travel between the US or Europe and destinations in Asia and the Far East, thanks to the ever-growing network of its national carrier, Qatar Airways.

According to de Boer, the way to do this has been to promote short stays for transit passengers, in order to give them a glimpse of the country and the opportunity to break up longer trips.

“You can stay for two or three nights in Qatar and then you can go on to somewhere like the Maldives, Dubai, or Europe. There is a little more to it than making it a stopover destination, but we have to make it suit the niche markets we are looking at,” he explains.

In doing so, he adds, there are new opportunities for hotels, tour operators and DMCs to boost their year-round business.
Qatar Airways’ inbound holidays department, Discover Qatar, for example, recently introduced packages to accommodate the short-stay market coming to Doha.

“Stopover packages are aimed at transit passengers who fly Qatar Airways and have to transit Doha to reach an onward connection,” explains Ray D’Souza, operations manager, Qatar Holidays.

He says a typical package includes two nights’ accommodation, tours and all transfers.

“It’s linked with connectivity,” he explains. “Some flights from some regions in the world may not have immediate connections, so that’s why we introduced stopovers.”

D’Souza says stopover packages are ideal for customers who have to wait for more than eight hours for a connecting flight. For shorter connections of less than eight hours but more than four, Discover Qatar has introduced a free city tour programme.

Passengers waiting for connecting flights are given a city tour voucher, which entitles them to get into Qatar temporarily without visas, subject to approval, explains Ken Matsumura, destination officer for Discover Qatar.

“This is suited to the Asian and Far East market in particular,” he explains. “Flights arrive in Doha in the morning and connect with flights to Europe in the afternoon, so customers can spend that time seeing some of the city.”

According to D’Souza, the city tours are designed to give travellers a taste of what Qatar has to offer, that will encourage them to return again for a business or leisure trip, adding value to their connection.

Unlike typical desert safaris in Dubai or Bahrain, Qatar’s tour operators offer visitors a unique trip to the desert surrounding the inland sea, on the border with Saudi Arabia.

“We’re going to be working on a product where the customer can go on a cruise from the pier, [in Doha], travel into the inland sea, board a four-wheel-drive and have the desert safari from there,” says D’Souza. “It could be up and running in the next two or three months.”

D’Souza explains that desert safaris are not popular with regional visitors because people are accustomed to driving in the desert, and if they wish to do so, they tend to hire a 4WD vehicle and go on their own. Visitors from Asia, the Far East, Europe and the US are Discover Qatar’s main customers, he adds.||**||A first class airline|~|The-Pearl.gif|~|Real estate developments like The Pearl will help Qatar position itself as an exclusive leisure destination for the discerning visitor, when they are completed.|~|Qatar Airways’ extensive network has served to raise awareness of Qatar in the destinations to which it operates, particularly in Asia, and the forthcoming Asian Games will further boost inbound traffic.

“The Asian Games will firmly put Doha and Qatar in the international spotlight,” says Salam al Shawa, senior manager marketing and communications, Qatar Airways.

“Around 25% of our global network is concentrated on Asia, including the Far East and Indian subcontinent, so the sponsorship will enhance our recognition even further in these key markets.”

The national carrier has been operating seven aircraft sporting a special Asian Games livery in the lead up the event, and promotional videos highlighting the games and Qatar itself have been screened on all Qatar Airways flights.

An extensive print media marketing campaign has just been extended to include a global TV campaign, which promotes both the destination and the games.

The TV commercial is being aired on several international TV programmes including CNN International, BBC World, Channel News Asia, Al Jazeera Sport, NDTV, New TV and India TV.

The expansion of the existing Doha International Airport, and the construction of a brand new hub on reclaimed land to the east, will give Qatar Airways the room to continue its rapid expansion and increase Qatar’s air capacity.

The first phase of the New Doha International Airport (NDIA), which includes 24 contact gates, is scheduled for completion in 2009, and when the second and third phases are completed in 2015, the airport will boast 80 contact gates and two parallel runways.

By the ultimate completion of the project in 2050, NDIA will be able to handle up to 50 million passengers per year.

QTA also acknowledges the importance of the Asian market, and sees the Asian games as an opportunity to showcase Qatar throughout the region.

“Some of the biggest marketing opportunities will be the China and the Indian sub-continent, because you have more than 2.4 billion people sitting on your doorstep,” says de Boer.

“North America will also be a huge market for us when Qatar Airways starts flying to the East Coast.”

Nevena Tabakova, director of sales and marketing for Gulf Adventures, one of Qatar’s leading DMCs concurs.

“We’re expecting an increase in the leisure business especially after the Asian Games and when some of the new hotels come online,” she says.

New properties and cultural attractions will also appeal to the burgeoning MICE market, she believes.

“Qatar still needs to work on the incentives market, but we believe that when all of the new facilities, such as the Museum of Islamic Art, Culture City, and Heritage Village are completed, it will make Qatar a more attractive destination for incentives programmes,” she adds.||**||Hotels for MICE|~||~||~|Qatar currently offers just 14 hotels across the four- and five-star category, but more than 40 new hotels will spring up in Doha in the next four years, nearly quadrupling the existing number of properties.

Recent arrivals like The Ritz-Carlton, Doha, Four Seasons Hotel Doha, Doha Marriott Hotel and the InterContinental Doha have upped the city’s room inventory, and
provided much needed meeting facilities, opening the small nation up to more events and conferences.

The Sheraton Doha, the oldest five-star hotel in the city, hosted Qatar’s fist major MICE event, which took place more than 15 years ago, and remains Qatar’s leading venue for conferences and meetings.

The Ritz-Carlton, Doha opened its doors five years ago, providing the city with much needed extra rooms and meeting facilities.

Since most of the hotels in Doha are focused on the business market, occupancy is not as seasonal as in resorts or leisure properties, but according to Thorsten Ries, general manager of the hotel, the plans to promote Qatar as a sporting destination will further increase the year-round potential.

“I see the long-term outlook for the sports travel market as being very positive,” he says.

“The good thing with the sports tourism market is that you have that business in the low season too. Cultural tourism will also be a major new market segment for both group and leisure travel.”

The much talked about Sharq Village & Spa, built in the style of a Qatari village, with traditional buildings, and winding lanes and alleyways, is expected to open in December.

Managed by The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company L.L.C, the property will comprise 174 rooms and suites, and a 71,500m² spa in the style of a Qatari souk or bazaar, which will be managed by Six Senses.

Last year the Four Seasons Doha brought it’s own blend of elegant charm and contemporary design to Doha, introducing an award-winning spa and wellness centre, and extensive meetings facilities.

General manager, Simon Casson, believes that any transition from a predominately business destination to a mixed-use sports and leisure destination will take time.

“Qatar is still corporate destination, and the leisure market is still fairly embryonic; it may account for 7% or 8% annually,” he explains.

“As a country, Qatar is fairly cautious, and we don’t want tourism overnight. We don’t want to be the new Dubai. We want to be the new Qatar. It’s still very much an ongoing work in progress.”

Mövenpick takes over the management of a second property in Doha from December 15. The 350-room Mövenpick Tower and Suites will be positioned as a five-star property, to cater to the top end of the market, while the existing 150-room Movenpick Hotel, Doha will look after four-star business.

Both hotels will focus on the corporate market, targeting short- and long-stay guests.

“Long-stay guests might stay for anything between a week and a month, while the rest of the clientele will be standard
corporate visitors that stay for one or two nights,” says Cypert Schwartz, general manager of the hotel.

Other major hotel chains set to open properties in the next four years include Hilton, Shangri-La, Rotana, Marriott, Hyatt, Sofitel, Millennium, and Bavaria. ||**||THE SALES PITCH|~||~||~|GETTING THERE:
Air Arabia: from Sharjah, daily.
Emirates Airlines: from Dubai, four daily.
Etihad Airways: from Abu Dhabi, six weekly.
Gulf Air: from Bahrain, 18 weekly.
Kuwait Airways: from Kuwait City, daily.
MEA: from Beirut, daily.
Oman Air: from Muscat, daily.
Qatar Airways: from Dubai, eight daily
Royal Jordanian: from Amman, three weekly.
Saudi Arabian Airlines: from Jeddah, one weekly; from Riyadh, two weekly.

CURRENCY:
1 Qatar Riyal (QAR) = US $0.27.

NEW DEVELOPMENTS:
The Pearl: Qatar’s answer to The Palm and Saadiyat Island, The Pearl will be home to around 40,000 residents when it is completed in 2009. The reclaimed island will feature three main marinas and distinct residential zones, comprising island villas, marina town houses, marina-view apartments, top-end hotels, and pristine beaches. The first phase of the development, set for completion in early 2007, will include upmarket retail and dining facilities and exclusive residential and hotel units, set around a Riviera setting.

The Museum of Islamic Art: will house what is billed to be the finest collection of Islamic art in the Middle East. It will feature a public reception area, exhibition galleries and education activities area, technical and administrative space and support services area.

Cultural Village: aspires to cater to the needs of the artists and scholars of Doha, bringing together international learning institutions in one $75 million development. It will include theatres, libraries, art galleries, museums, an amphitheatre, heritage centres and other academic facilities.

ASPIRE: Qatar’s Academy of Sports Excellence, has been around since 2005, nurturing the sporting abilities of the whole nation, from the top athletes to mothers and toddlers.

PACKAGES:
Discover Qatar: prices for a two-night stay at the four-star Ramada Hotel, including breakfast, airport transfers, half-day desert safari in private 4WD, half-day city tour with an English speaking guide, start at US $353 per person, based on two people sharing, including all service charges and tax.

The Ritz-Carlton, Doha: a three-night stay in a deluxe room, including daily breakfast in the Lagoon Restaurant starts at QR2700 ($742) per person.
A meeting package, including accommodation, meeting room rental, audiovisual equipment, coffee break, lunch buffet and dinner buffet in the Lagoon Restaurant starts at QR1445 ($397) per person per night, based on a minimum of 10 people. The Ritz-Carlton, Doha offers agents 5-10% commission. ||**||

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