Qatar Courts Tourism Market

Last month's Asian Games went on as scheduled, just as they have every four years since 1951. By the name of the event, one would assume that the games are held each year in Asia, perhaps somewhere in China or Japan. Not this year. 

The 15th Asian Games were held in Doha, the capital city of Qatar, a Middle Eastern peninsula that juts 100 miles out into the Persian Gulf off of its southern neighbor, Saudi Arabia. It was the first time the Games were held in the region since 1974, when Tehran played host.

While Qatar is considered both part of the Middle East and western Asia, the selection of Qatar to host the Games was met by ridicule and disdain by many of the other countries vying for the honor. Invariably, their reasoning was the same: Qatar's wealth influenced the selection.

Yes, Qatar is the richest Arab nation per capita—it has the highest gross domestic product in the developing world, primarily due to oil exports—and while that might be a detriment to other countries contending to host sporting events, the new wealth has been a windfall for Qatar's tourism industry, which has welcomed a steady influx of leisure travelers over the past decade, aided by the creation of the Qatar Tourism Authority in 2000.

Needless to say, the vast oil and gas reserves have always made Qatar a center for business travel, but the expansion of DohaInternationalAirport and the construction of additional infrastructure in preparation for the Asian Games will serve as an enabler for future leisure travel.

Entertainment City: 2009 Debut

One of the biggest undertakings serving to spur Qatar's tourism industry was last month's announcement, which ran concurrently with the Asian Games, of a $3 billion development called EntertainmentCity, slated for completion by 2009. The plan is at the center of Qatar's new Lusail development, which is essentially a new city being built just to the north of Doha.

The development will abut a large blue water lagoon with two marinas and will house many other facilities, including two golf courses. Abu Dhabi Investment House is behind EntertainmentCity, which will be a 3.9-square-mile mixed-use development consisting of hospitality, leisure and recreational facilities. The destination will have theme parks, themed hotels, shopping, restaurants, a water park and a cinema complex.

Rashad Janahi, CEO of Abu Dhabi Investment House, said the planned development would add momentum to Qatar's tourism boom and serve to attract a broad demographic of visitors.

Accommodating new visitors to the region is one thing Qatar will be equipped to do over the next couple of years. As it stands now, hotels in the Doha area are relatively expensive due in part to low supply. However, that will all change by the end of the decade. With 40 confirmed hotel projects in the hopper, Doha will more than triple its supply of hotel rooms in the next two years. By the end of 2007, there will be more than 8,000 new rooms in the area, and the 2009 addition of EntertainmentCity will set the hotel room count at 15,000 rooms.

Yet, Jacky Keith, president of Esplanade Tours in Boston, still thinks Qatar is more of a stopover attraction for U.S. travelers on their way to India or Egypt, while Europeans consider it a destination in itself.

"Americans are not using it as a destination yet," Keith says. "I've booked a few nights there for travelers on their way to India. But the country has a lot of money, so it could become a destination, like Dubai, for U.S. travelers down the line."