The countdown is on and the excitement is writ large all over. Not just in the tiny Gulf nation of Qatar, but across the Gulf Cooperation Council countries as the first global sporting event heads to the region this November in the shape of FIFA World Cup 2022, the most popular sporting tournament in the world.
A lot has changed on the ground ever since Qatar became the first country in the GCC as well as the Middle East to win the bid to host the prestigious championship. The country has witnessed a frenzy of construction, with numerous stadiums being renovated entirely, in addition to significant growth in the hotel rooms capacity as well as other tourism related infrastructure.
Last November, with just a year to go for the World Cup, Qatar Tourism released its long-term vision document, Qatar Tourism Vision 2030 that leverages the country’s existing tourism products as well as building on the large number of hotels, theme parks, shopping malls and other large-scale leisure projects that are coming up in time for the World Cup and beyond.
Taking a view to rapidly ramp up tourist arrival numbers, Qatar Tourism has set an ambitious target of receiving 6 million visitors by 2020, over three times as many as 1.9 million non-GCC citizens who visited the country in 2019. Not just the number of tourists, Qatar has set itself a tough target of increasing tourism revenue four times from 2019 levels and the vision document sets out average duration of stay and offering wider variety of experiences to the tourists.
With addition of 105 hotels and service apartments as well as other tourism-related infrastructure, Qatar Tourism expects to raise the contribution of tourism to 10 pc of the national GDP in the next eight years.
Recovery from pandemic
Qatar’s targets sound even more ambitious when seen in the light of the impact of Covid-19 pandemic. Before the pandemic outbreak, Qatar had been registering a steady and healthy growth in non-GCC tourist arrivals from 1.56 million in 2017, to 1.63 million in 2018 and 1.91 million in 2019. Since then, the numbers have literally dropped into an abyss, falling to 521,000 in 2020 and then further to 431,000 last year.
While non-GCC tourists were still few last year, the number of GCC visitors registered a significant jump, rising from 60,000 in 2020 to 181,000 in 2021, a growth of nearly 300 pc in a year. This sharp jump is mainly explained by the normalisation of relations between Qatar and most of its fellow GCC members, following a spat with Saudi Arabia and the UAE in June 2017, which led to a near blockade of Qatar by three of the GCC states. In January 2021, a peace deal was reached, setting the way for friendly ties again and this explains the three-fold jump in GCC visitors last year.
With the pandemic largely behind, Qatar can rapidly expect a quick return to pre-blockade numbers from GCC and even beyond, especially with the World Cup in sight.
On the road to recovery, India is a a key market for Qatar. In 2021, even with the restrictions in place, over 166,000 visitors or 26 pc of all visitors to Qatar were from India. In 2022, the trend is likely to continue, though Qatar’s traditional GCC markets could be expected to send in far greater numbers this year, thanks to the pandemic slowing down and of course the FIFA World Cup.
Going forward, Qatar has identified its key source markets, beyond the GCC and is devising a custom-made strategy for each, says Philip Dickinson, Vice President, International Markets, of Qatar Tourism. “We basically prioritised about 17 countries in terms of what we call our priority source market. And that’s a mixture of what we call some of the traditional European markets that come for some winter sun for the longer holidays and then some of the emerging markets as well, like India and China and some of the big stopover markets like Australia and the USA. We have been launching a global consumer awareness campaign called their Experience a World Beyond. We have some really exciting creatives, some really exciting TV ads. We’re going across all the line, through the line, below the line, out of home, in home TV, print, digital, social, across all channels to get some really exciting sort of way to communicate,’’ Dickinson told India Outbound recently.
The campaign was launched last November by Chairman of Qatar Tourism and Qatar Airways Group Chief Executive, Akbar Al Baker.
“The country’s extensive developments are well underway as we welcome visitors from around the world, with exceptional hospitality at every touchpoint. The launch of the Experience a World Beyond marks a significant point in our journey to establishing ourselves as a world leading destination and welcoming six million visitors per year by 2030,” Al Baker had said at the launch, adding that the new advertising campaign reflected Qatar’s commitment to expanding its tourism proposition, in line with Qatar’s National Vision 2030.
Before starting the campaign, Qatar Tourism also launched a new website in five languages and went on to launch a mobile app to showcase the destination. Qatar has also gone out of the way in providing visa-free access to 85 countries, a rare occurrence in the world of tourism.
Big expectations from India
In view of rising demand for sports tourism in India, notably for world-scale competitions, Qatar is banking on pulling in a large number of football fans from India. A part of their very logical expectation is the fact that this is the first time World Cup Football has come so close to India, barely a 3-hour hop by plane and with the easing of visa and travel norms, Qatar Tourism rightly expects an unprecedented number of Indians to be in the stands when the competition does kick off on November 25. Dickinson says the bookings so far have been extremely promising. “We are expecting a lot of visitation from India for the World Cup. We know already as we are getting an indication from the Match Hospitality that sells hospitality packages for the World Cup that one of the highest take ups, market wise, is from the Indian market. So the Indian market is already engaged on the interest of coming over to the World Cup,’’ Dickinson says.
Qatar Tourism has spared neither money nor resources in developing a comprehensive marketing and promotional campaign, with a fair bit of innovation as well. Besides the multilingual website and the mobile app, the destination says it has signed up some award-winning Disney producers. “They have helped us with the characters that sort of introduce the destination and bring the attractions and bring everything there is to see and do in Qatar. These characters represent our different demand spaces and our demand spaces around sun seekers or around active holidays or they’re around romantic getaways or around culture enthusiasts, relax and rejuvenate. So, we are not specifically targeting demographics, we are targetting the type of demand that we feel that Qatar can fit quite well in terms of what people are looking for from a holiday,’’ explains Dickinson.
Qatar is not just targetting tourists who come specifically to visit Qatar, but in a very innovative and savvy approach, the destination is also eyeing the stop-over or transiting visitors. Since the flag carrier Qatar Airways has an extensive network of flights originating in India that transit through Doha and then head on to various parts of the world, notably Europe, North America as well as parts of Middle East and Africa, Qatar Tourism has launched an irresistible offer that comes with a 4-star hotel at throwaway price of USD 14 per night. With visa on arrival for Indian nationals, Qatar may have hit a goldmine with this novel approach. ‘‘We are excited about India for a number of reasons really. But again, it’s proximity because it is such a short flight. So, even if people want to come for a long weekend, they can do that. We also know that Indians travel a lot from India across to, say, Europe or further to the US. So we are very interested in picking up some of their stop over business as well. We have a fabulous stopover programme that we’ve put together with the national carrier, with Qatar Airways and also with Discover Qatar and Qatar Holidays, which is the inbound operator and the holiday company for Qatar Airways. We help subsidise that as Qatar Tourism. So we have made it as a hook so you can stay for as cheap as USD 14 per person per night in a four star hotel in Qatar on the Stopover programme. So we have made it really affordable,’’ says Dickinson.
Destination for all reasons
Qatar is looking to attract a variety of tourists from India – be it vacation or the stopover traffic. Qatar Tourism says that it has a lot of options and activities on offer to the tourists – be it tourists looking to relax and rejuvenate, couples headed for a romantic getaway, visitors seeking culture and shopping. Dickinson says one of the key focus areas for Qatar Tourism in India is the booming meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions or MICE market and where India could potentially be the go-to market in the post-pandemic world, at least until China reopens for travel. ‘‘The other segment that we are very interested in India is the MICE segment. We have fabulous venues, locations and lots of activities and other things that they can do. In addition, everything here is very compact, very easy to go around with a large group of people,’’ says Dickinson.
Qatar is banking on the fact that it has a ‘first-class’ and modern tourism infrastructure– be it hotels, convention centres, fine dining options or museums, besides excellent public facilities. Dickinson says that instead of looking at competition, Qatar Tourism believes each place comes with its own assets. ‘‘We have got a lot of modernity in addition to a sort of stylish chilled resort. If you want some razzle dazzle you go to Dubai, if you want something a little bit more refined, then perhaps you go to Qatar. Again, everywhere is slightly different,’’ says Dickinson.
Qatar Tourism has set interesting targets for returns on its extensive investments in the country. And it has ambitious targets for growth in the number of Indian tourists as well. Of the 6 million tourists that it expects from the world over in 2030, Qatar Tourism says at least 600,000 or a good 10 pc must be from India. For comparison, in the pre-pandemic era in 2019, Qatar received 300,000 visitors from India, making it one of the top source markets.
To get there, the tourism body is all set to launch an extensive marketing and promotional campaign in India and hopes to see the numbers bounding up from Eid onwards itself. Thanks to the World Cup round the corner as well as the huge pent-up demand for outbound travel in India, Qatar Tourism may indeed be hitting the ball bang on target.