DOHA // Planning a holiday? Qatar may not leap to mind.
“For leisure tourists, let’s be honest, we’re not quite ready,” said Sadeem al Mahmied, the head of marketing for Qatar Tourism Authority.
Instead, Qatari officials are aiming for organisers of conferences and exhibitions. “We have the facilities to host business events,” Ms al Mahmied said. “So we are trying to attract that segment, high-level travellers, business travellers.”
Because of its sizeable natural resources – Qatar has the world’s third largest reserves of natural gas – the country has been slower than such neighbours as Bahrain and the UAE in developing a tourism sector as part of its economic diversification.
Now it may be making up for lost time. Qatar is organising more than 180 major events this year, after hosting 80 last year.
Tourism revenue has grown at six per cent annually for the past few years, according to the tourism authority. Its focus is not mass tourism, but Mice tourism: a slice of the billion-dollar international meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions sector.
Hotel occupancy averaged about 70 per cent in 2008. But with the financial downturn and the swine flu scare, the number of visitors dipped last year. As tourism infrastructure improves, Qatari officials expect that trend to reverse.
Doha’s new US$5bn (Dh18bn) international airport opens next year. In 2012 the Doha Convention Centre and Towers will begin to host VIP gatherings in West Bay. And in the five years to follow a new port, a $25bn metro and light rail and a pedestrian-friendly downtown are all set to come online.
It is the National Convention Centre, to be opened next year, that has the Mice circuit drooling. The 177,000sq m facility has nine exhibition halls and 40,000sq m of exhibition space, a 4,000-seat theatre, a 2,300-seat auditorium and 57 meeting rooms. The roof will feature enough solar panels to provide one-eighth of the building’s power needs and the entire space is wired for internet connectivity and remote radio tracking of participants.
Designed by Arata Isozaki with an entry that looks like a sidra tree, the symbol of its backer, the Qatar Foundation, the centre will host the World Petroleum Congress in December next year.
To attract more such events, tourism officials leave for a European roadshow next month, stopping at conventions in Madrid, Milan, Paris and London. Next year they target Asia, and the following year the US market. Their campaign promotes Qatar’s strong infrastructure and leads with the slogan, “Experience 48 hours in Qatar: Your business is our pleasure.”
In 2009, Doha’s tourist infrastructure was bolstered by the addition of 2,000 hotel rooms last year. The city will add a further 2,500 rooms this year, from luxury brands including Kapinsky, Hilton and Shangri-La, bringing the total available rooms to 10,000. The tourism authority expects that number to nearly triple by 2012.
One project that will not be coming online anytime soon is Barwa al Khor’s Urjuan development. After beginning construction on the $10bn project, designed to hold nearly 25,000 homes and a luxury beachfront resort 40km north of Doha, work was indefinitely suspended in December.
Despite the focus on business travellers, Qatar holds some appeal for holidaymakers. Souq Waqif, a downtown Doha souk rebuilt to echo its ancient origins, presents narrow twisting alleys and dozens of shops offering ouds and North African drums, leather saddles, carpet bags and hunting falcons, each worth 100,000 rials.
Nearby, the stunning Museum of Islamic Art holds one of the most wide-ranging collections of Islamic art and artefacts in the world, including Syrian glassware, Quranic calligraphy and the white jade pendant that the Moghul emperor Shah Jahan wore after the death of his beloved, Mumtaz, for whom he built the Taj Mahal. The museum’s Pearls exhibition opened Friday, highlighted by the Pearl Carpet of Baroda, a 19th-century bauble of the maharaja of Baroda that the museum bought at auction for $5m last year.
Qatar’s top natural attraction may be Khor al Adaid, or Inland Sea, a 15km-long tidal lake near the southern coast.
Considering the site for World Heritage status, Unesco says: “The area presents a remarkable landscape and offers world-class scenic beauty.”
Moreover, celebrating Doha’s year as the Arab Capital of Culture began last week with the launch of the Qatar Marine Festival. This week the Doha Food Fest kicks off.
Last year, Doha eased visa restrictions for day visitors, thus opening itself as a port of call for cruise lines and making such events more accessible. The city saw 10 to 12 stops last year, according to the tourism authority, and is expecting up to 25 this year. That number will expand considerably when the new port opens in 2014.
Still, only 10 per cent of foreign visitors are holidaymakers.
“We have a number of projects going on, and once those are finished we will aim more for the leisure traveller,” Ms al Mahmied said. She said an indoor-outdoor water park on the edge of the city and a Cultural Village of theatres, shops, galleries and cafes along the coast north of West Bay will open next year.
That may explain why the Qatar Tourism Authority hosted a tourism marketing training workshop this week. Veteran tourism marketers guided visiting tourism officials, hotel representatives and tour operators through the various steps of selling a place and a vision.
“They’re teaching us how to build a marketing plan the right way – to be clear in setting goals and following up,” Ms al Mahmied said. “We need to introduce Qatar as a destination to people who are not aware.”
originally ran in The National, www.thenational.ae