A little-known holiday destination until 2010, Qatar was thrust onto the world stage with football world governing body Fifa’s announcement that the tiny Gulf state would host the World Cup in 2022.

Staging the event forms part of the government’s plan to turn Qatar into a major tourism destination. It intends to invest up to $25bn over the next 10 years in the sector.

Tourism’s contribution to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) is expected to reach $12bn by the end of 2012, more than double the amount seen in 2010.

In 2000, Qatar welcomed 78,000 tourists, rising to 913,000 by 2005 and reaching 1.8 million in 2010. The number of visitor arrivals jumped a further 12.3 per cent in the first six months of 2011.

Occupancy rates for hotels in the country reached 63 per cent in the first six months of 2011 compared with 61 per cent for the same period in 2010, according to report from Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA)

Leisure travel to Qatar

The country’s booming economy has helped it to attract the business traveller, which comprise about 90 per cent of all tourists, but the state also hopes to lure leisure tourists.

Having established the country as the top meetings, incentives, conferences, events player in the region, the QTA is also targeting sports and education tourism. Leisure travel spending is expected to total QR7.7bn ($2.1bn) in 2011 and Doha hopes to increase this to QR13.9bn in 2021. Business travel spending is expected to total QR2.4bn in 2011, rising to QR4.9bn in 2021 according to the UK-based World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).

International hotel brands are eager to expand their presence in the country in anticipation of the half a million football fans expected to attend the World Cup 2022 sports event. The government plans to provide 55,000 more rooms in 140 new hotels in time for the football tournament.

A total of 80,00 new hotel rooms are to be built by 2016, of which 37,000 new hotel rooms will be in Doha. Al-Wakrah will have 13,000 additional rooms and Lusail will have 12,000 new rooms in time for the event.

Flagship carrier Qatar Airways has under gone rapid expansion since it was established in 1993 and aims to be flying to 110 countries by the end of 2011, increasing to 120 destinations over the next two years with a fleet of 120 aircraft.

The airline has capitalised on Qatar’s position between Europe and Asia, turning the country into a stopover destination for tourists on their way to places such as Hong Kong and Australia. To support this, the QTA launched the Qatar 48 initiative, to encourage stopover visitors to extend their stay in the country.

If the shopping and cultural offering are good, then [stopover] tourist are likely to stay longer

John Kester, World Travel & Tourism Council

“Having world-class infrastructure is very attractive to stopover travellers to convince them to stay a couple of nights,” says John Kester, manager of tourism trends and marketing strategies programme at the WTTC. “If the shopping and cultural offerings are good, then tourists are likely to stay longer.”

Leisure travel spending (inbound and domestic) is expected to generate 76.3 per cent of direct travel and tourism GDP in 2011 compared with 23.7 per cent for business travel spending. To support the growth of the sector, the country’s transport infrastructure is being improved.

Doha’s new $11bn airport, which will be able to handle 24 million passengers a year, will open in 2012. The government is planning to spend $35bn on its rail infrastructure over the next decade. It includes the Doha metro, Lusail Light Rail, West Bay people mover and a high-speed passenger line from Doha to the northwest, close to Bahrain.

Qatar: A cultural destination

Besides the infrastructure, Qatar is investing heavily in attractions and looking to establish itself as a cultural destination. In January 2008, the Qatar Museum of Islamic Art opened at a cost of $300m. The following year, Qatar was named cultural destination of the year by the New York Times, describing the city as the new arts capital of the Middle East.

Christie’s Islamic art specialist Sara Plumbly says Qatar’s Islamic art collection is one of the most impressive in the world and the country’s spending spree has served to drive up art prices globally.

“Interest from the Gulf has increased interest in Islamic art and has pushed up prices,” says Plumbly. Traditional art is not the only medium the country has been investing in, it has also purchased contemporary works.

According to UK-based the Art Newspaper, Qatar has become the world’s biggest contemporary art buyer. In the art world, it is nearly impossible to obtain exact figures, but Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, daughter of the ruling emir and chairman of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) is spearheading the country’s buying spree. She has even lured away auction house Christie’s chairman Edward Dolman to become executive director of her office and board member of the QMA.

A country must find its own strength and build upon it. If each country goes after the same tourists, nobody wins

John Kester, World Travel & Tourism Council

The US Census Bureau – Foreign Trade says that from 2005-11, cultural exports to Qatar totalled $428,162,894. This figure includes the purchase of a Mark Rothko piece bought for $72.8m in 2007, one of the highest amounts ever paid for a piece of contemporary art.

To date, Qatar has imported £21m-worth of paintings from the UK and which included British artist Damien Hirst’s Lullaby Spring in 2007, which was sold for £9.2m. Qatar has also bought £87.1m in antiques, according to the UK’s Trade Info Statistics.

Work is also under way on a new national museum. In early September, South Korea’s Hyundai Engineering & Construction was awarded a $343m contract to build the new Qatar National Museum in Doha, which is expected to take 33 months to complete. The project includes building a new museum and renovating parts of the former national museum, which closed in 2007.

To make Doha a more attractive destination, its centre is being redeveloped. Under a project known as Musheireb, a 35 hectare area is being regenerated. The city’s central Souq Wakif has already under gone a major overhaul and is now a prime tourist attraction.

Middle East traffic to Qatar

Qatar is not just targeting international arrivals, it also hopes to become a regional destination.

“The middle classes of the region have been growing, so there is demand from both outside the Middle East and from within the region,” says Kester. “This demand is very important. The UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman have been benefitting from this, particularly from Saudi Arabian tourists who generate quite a bit of traffic.”

Tourist arrivals to Qatar from within the GCC increased by 39.1 per cent in the first six months of 2011 compared with the same period in 2010. 

But Qatar has limitations, in particular its size. Besides its sand dunes and beaches, it has little to draw on, lacking the historical sites of places such as Egypt and Syria.

According to Kester, the authorities will have to carve out a distinctive identity for Qatar in order to attract the tourist and maintain demand.

“Anywhere can become a destination. Las Vegas was once a desert, as was Dubai. A country needs to find its own strength and build upon that. If each country goes after the same tourist, nobody will win,” he says.

Qatar’s strength could lie in the events and sports sector. It has already enjoyed success winning the right to host the 2022 World Cup, having already staged the Asian Games in 2006. If its bid to also hold the Olympics in 2020 succeeds, after losing out in 2016, then sports tourism could be a viable niche.