x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

The party starts now for Qatar hotels

The 2022 Fifa World Cup may still be a decade off, but the Qatari hospitality sector has already kicked off an expansion spree aiming to cater to crowds of football fans.

The hotel and spa Grand Heritage of Doha. Nadine Rupp / Getty Images
The hotel and spa Grand Heritage of Doha. Nadine Rupp / Getty Images

The World Cup kick-off in Qatar may be a decade away, but the nation's hotel sector is having a ball in the build-up to the biggest sporting showpiece in GCC history.

Hotel development is moving along at a rapid pace and rooms are being occupied by the army of contractors who are angling for the rights to build infrastructure projects, stadiums and railways.

"The World Cup is definitely providing a more acute focus on hotel development overall," says Gavin Samson, the managing director for the Middle East and North Africa at Christie + Co, a hotel consultancy. "It's providing an impetus and a justification for large-scale developments to go ahead."

Qatar could have about 35,000 hotel rooms by 2022, more than double the present number, according to Christie + Co.

The hotel boom there is reminiscent of similar booms that have taken place in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

"If all of the projected rooms are developed in Qatar, then it does come to the top of the list in terms of the largest percentage growth," says Mr Samson.

Much of the development is still at the luxury end of the market, with properties including a Mandarin Oriental and Shangri-La and a US$5.5 billion (Dh20.2bn) waterfront project, Lusail, under construction.

Hotels that have opened in the past 12 months include a St Regis property and a second InterContinental in Doha.

Abdulla Malalla Al Bader, the director of tourism at the Qatar tourism authority, points to the growth in a major construction exhibition, Project Qatar.

Last year, there was a 73 per cent increase in the number of companies heading over for the expo, underlining the international interest in the 2022 World Cup.

"They just want to come to Qatar to show their facilities to work in Qatar, especially for 2022," says Mr Al Bader.

It is not just contractors who are attracted to the country. "A lot of people just want to visit to see what kind of place will host the 2022 World Cup," adds Mr Al Bader. "This by itself attracts a lot of people."

So far, Qatar has 112 hotels and hotel-apartments with 16,922 rooms, according to figures from the tourism authority.

Average hotel-occupancy rates reached 64 per cent in the first quarter of the year, and revenues of four and five-star establishments reached 734.34 million riyals (Dh740.80m), a32m riyal increase from the same period last year, according to the tourism authority.

The tourism authority has already granted permission for the construction of 100 more hotels, Mr Al Bader notes. Of these, some are already being built, while others are still in the design phase.

"It's not only because of the World Cup," says Mr Al Bader, explaining that there is increased tourism and that the Gulf state has a rapidly growing conference and exhibitions business.

"We have to make theme parks, a lot of attractions. We have to make sure that those hotels are occupied by people who will come for other things," he says.

The authority has also come up with a financial solution for foreign and local investors alike to help boost tourism development.

A plan is being put together with the Qatar Development Bank that would allow investors of any nationality to receive loans for tourism developments.

Hoteliers are confident that the Doha government will be able to expand the industry during the next decade.

"When they finish all the hotels and after the World Cup, definitely the room supply in Doha will be huge," says Rami Farhat, the director of sales and marketing at the Sharq Village and Spa hotel in Doha, which is operated by Ritz-Carlton.

"Qatar is booming now. We had a hard time to tell everyone where Qatar was on the map before we got the bid for 2022.

"I'm sure the government have a plan to bring a lot of international exhibitions, or a lot of events to Doha, in order to not leave all those hotels empty after the World Cup."

Various other accommodation solutions for football's biggest tournament are being kicked around as well.

In its tourism strategy, Qatar aims to focus on business travel, including conferences and exhibitions, as well as sports tourism. Business travel to Qatar makes up about three-quarters of all hotel bookings.

"The message that we get is that Qatar is quite conservative," says Walter Dias, the executive director in Doha for Unique Choice, a travel company. "They are looking at culture as tourism, sports tourism and heritage tourism.

"So that would only complement what Dubai is doing and what Oman is doing. When you come to Middle East, you have lots of shopping, easy life, and good fun in Dubai and then you can come for culture, heritage, sports events to Qatar," he adds. "Then you can even go to Oman for wadi-bashing and dolphin watching."

The transit business is also important for Qatar. "People are coming to see Qatar, and these are the ones who are choosing Qatar Airways to bridge them between the East and the West," says Mr Dias.

"As the years go by, you will have different segments of people coming in," he says. "Who's coming in now? People who think they have the opportunity to build infrastructure. People who think they can come and do something with sports. Somebody who thinks they can do a lot of supplies for railway networks, hoteliers. It's a momentum that's building up."

rbundhun@thenational.ae

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