Qatar’s World Cup Prep and the Quest for a Lasting Tourism Experience

I last covered Qatar’s World Cup run about a year ago. I found Doha to be a very tight deadline, and there was a bit of controversy with the supply chain disruption with Covid and the flow of visitors in and out of the country. As I reported at the time, I was able to squint and see the bigger picture and the massive strategic building blocks being built amidst the construction dust, new hotels and infrastructure coming online.

I flew back a few weeks ago out of curiosity. My recent visit to Hamad International revealed a more complex skyline, particularly in the northern part of Doha, Lusail. I saw more cultural connections across the city, such as the M7, a center for innovation and entrepreneurship in design, fashion and technology. The Soho-feeling Msherib development had more cafes like Kitsune and Toby’s Estate Coffee scattered around the Mandarin Oriental. As the tournament demands, there are new places where people can gather outside to watch the matches, with music playing and people gathering outside: something I didn’t see five years ago.

I saw new stadiums, fancy new malls, and areas that hinted at Qatar’s big post-World Cup ambitions, moving the country from mandatory stopover to destination. And that’s a really big question. Could Qatar be a long-term draw after the latest soccer goals are introduced this December, especially in the increasingly complex and competitive tourism market emerging in the Middle East?

Qatar, more than many other tourism events today, is an interesting mix of visions, ambitions, tastes, as well as regulatory and cultural challenges. The country, like many previous World Cup hosts, used the Games as a coercive factor to accelerate change. While neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia are using press-friendly 3D renderings and future speculation with interesting names, Qatar now seems to be building things with deep roots. And they didn’t just build for tournament needs, they took a long-term view.

It’s useful to have a starting point for reference: the National Museum provides a brief snapshot of the country’s brief history since independence in 1971. The visual narrative for tourists has the subtext “look at what we have achieved”. in a short period of time: It’s one thing to be a rich country, it’s another to move from desert to urban sophistication in a meaningful way.’ Given this context, the scope of the work seems enormous.

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Achieving tournament placement needs would be easy. But based on my observations, there are long-term pillars that are being built to have long-term resonance. First, investment in art and culture has been important: from museums, to design and retail stores invited to open in the country, and to support young designers and innovators. Health and medicine is another pillar. Cedars-Sinai has announced the opening of a hospital that will serve as a medical center in Qatar. An hour’s drive from Doha is Zulal, a large-scale health resort in partnership with the Chiwa Som property in Thailand, a five-star resort focused on medical treatment and restorative wellness.

This commitment to long-term pillars of engagement includes many other elements of development, such as education, as well as softer, less tangible areas of the customer experience.

Berthold Trenkel, Chief Operating Officer of Qatar Tourism, asked me the obvious question: “We’ve laid the foundations, now the question is how can we create a fantastic tourism experience?” He focused on improving the nuances of the tourist experience. Trenkel told me about the rideshare driver’s education and training program, as well as the desire to embed tourism information into cars, transportation and other communications so people know what to do during their trip.

“We want to invest in these soft elements using as much regulatory leverage as possible.” He told me that getting Airbnb online in the country was quick; some company mandates required a two-week regulatory sprint to comply, and there are some things to improve a soft product that can be quickly expedited. Other things may take longer.

Part of a good strategy means knowing your audience. Trenkel told me that when creating a long-term tourism vision, they are thinking about who they are trying to target. Some people do not accept vacations in the Middle East. Others, such as luxury travelers to Africa, are a smart target. “In some markets we cannot win. The strategy is to say no,” he said. Family travel has been cited as a growing market for the country: the Middle East, especially Qatar, is child-friendly, and tourist attractions cater to this. He pointed over his shoulder at a ride that didn’t exist a year ago.

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Part of the long-term sell is also making the country a good place for foreigners to move to, from migrant workers to executives, and making it a place where people want to put down roots. In my informal visits to diplomats, employers, and various representatives of the hospitality trade, they say that the minimum wage, housing standards, environmental standards related to working outside in the heat, and the bottom line have all progressed over the past 10 years. workers. But there is still a long way to go in terms of real, sustainable labor reform and creating a magnet where people can come to work and feel that there is real support for their mobility, freedom and roots. Rights should be extended from professionalism to remittances to young workers who come to work and their families. It takes time, but it is necessary.

The World Cup will also be a pressure test to manage cultural tensions between the West and conservative Islamic society, more than just the tournament experience. Much thought has been given to how it will come together, but it will only be seen when the tourists flock.

Trenkel shared with me a technique called “fan zones,” which allowed people to gather outside and watch the matches. There will be places for food, designated areas where alcoholic beverages will be served, and a pleasant environment. He also noted that regional visitors are in high demand for a “dry” experience, as visitors from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and elsewhere want to enjoy the matches without alcohol. And thanks to infrastructure investment, fans can catch multiple matches a day if they want, with match times in the early stages. The stadiums are not as big as Barcelona’s storied Nou Camp, but instead hold 40,000 guests and offer a better view of the action on the pitch.

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Since this column covers experience, my last column also had open-ended questions about friction and country entry. I needed local numbers to get in and out of the country, download apps, and had to go to the hospital to get out of the PCR. This seems to have been fixed. As of October 26, the PCR test requirements for entering the country have been removed. The Ehteraz app, which was previously required to cross the border and enter public spaces, has also been removed. Ticket holders must now have a Haya card, which is required to enter stadiums and enter the country. This is mainly a fan ID that allows access to metro and bus transport services, as well as eliminating the need for visas for international visitors.

In my view, hosting the World Cup in a Middle Eastern country is progress. Investment, infrastructure and ambition have moved the country forward since I first visited, and in a more thoughtful way than some of its rapidly changing regional neighbours. There is a strong strategy for some of Qatar’s most publicized mistakes and missteps, as well as a cultural appetite for developing hotels, museums and arts and culture initiatives.

What they did was not just about hosting the World Cup, it started a long-term journey involving all aspects of society: work, development and culture. If the same ambition is realized, the country’s tourism will look much different in five years. If they take the feedback to heart and accelerate more change, it will be a regional, perhaps global, success.


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