Qatar Tourism waits to charm the world
In the short term, Qatar aims to welcome the world for the much-awaited FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. In the longer term, the country aims to triple its number of visits and double its tourism revenue by 2030. With its regional blockades recently removed, the country is back on the travel map for travellers within the region, but the latest Covid-19 restrictions are slowing things down.
We spoke to Berthold Trenkel, Chief Operating Officer of Qatar National Tourism Council (QNTC), about the growing hotel portfolio and the challenges and opportunities that it brings, the ongoing travel restrictions in place, and the importance of travel trade, especially in the context of the World Cup.
“We have about 132 hotels right now that are open and operating, and another 108 in the pipeline that will open before the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. It's not exactly doubling the number but we do move up from 32,000 rooms to about 58,000 rooms. While our neighbours might have the biggest number of hotel rooms in their pipeline, if you compare our sizes we're much smaller, and therefore the jump in terms of percentage increase is just gigantic.”
Trenkel is referring to the report that mentions Saudi Arabia has having the largest hotel pipeline in the world.
Last TTN spoke to Qatar Tourism Authority before the blockade, the focus on new-build hotels was very much based on luxury, but Trenkel has been working towards educating investors to make smarter investment decisions.
“The real world is not made up of just five-star hotels. You and I know that,” he says in the exclusive conversation with us. “Yes, tonnes of investment has gone into the luxury hospitality space in the past and continues to go even now, as much as everyone would love to stay in a palace, not everyone has the money to do that.
“If you visit, I want you to be safe, but I also want people who live here to be safe and not take up crazy risks just because we're opening up”
– Berthold Trenkel
“To grow tourism, you have to build the right portfolio that matches the demand from various markets. I'm pushing some investors to rethink what they're building and for whick market, and to make a smarter investments, to where demand will be, for instance, into four and three stars.
“There is definitely a shift in philosophy and strategy when it comes to new builds. Sometimes you can steer the investments a little bit through your regulations but a lot of it is just education and communication that really nudges people to be more rational about their investments and, and just not be hung up on luxury.
“Another segment that needs a push is beachfront properties, which we have a shortage of, but also immense opportunity: the Qatari peninsula has 563-kilometre-long coastlines and people love beach holidays.”
“In terms of lockdowns, we have seen some relaxation in terms of local movement after the second wave is behind us, we have returned to our offices,” Trenkel tells us.
“In terms of international borders opening up, you can travel if you’re Qatari or a resident permit holder. Starting this February as the vaccination rollout started, if you're a resident who has been vaccinated locally in Qatar and completed your vaccination at least 14 days ago, you can return to Qatar with a negative PCR test and go straight home. If you're a resident who has not been vaccinated locally, you would have to go through a mandatory seven-day hotel quarantine.
“This rule has since been updated to include approved vaccinations taken in other countries as well and not just locally.
“The logical next step would be to open up travel of vaccinated travellers internationally – from the neighbouring GCC and beyond – but it's all about timing and we need to wait for it.
“Put yourself into the shoes of a health professional: your KPIs are quite different, your KPIs are around health and safety and how many patients you have in your health system and how you can support them. So, you're looking at a very different set of KPIs compared to a tourism board who wants to see increase in visitors, visitor spend and room nights. But we are constantly communicating with each other to come to a common ground.
“It goes both ways. If you visit, I want you to be safe, but I also want people who live here to be safe and not take up crazy risks just because we're opening up.”
Last year was a great year for domestic tourism, Trenkel tells us. “We had this huge amount of domestic tourism happening last summer because people were naturally stuck and started to explore their own country. And because it was the summer break, people moved into resorts and any beachfront property that was available. So, anyone with the right sun, sea and sand product was completely sold out. What happened during the second Eid was crazy. The second Eid last year was better in terms of occupancy than the Eid in 2019!
“So the domestic market was so robust and strong. At the same time, we also saw business happening when it comes to touristic activities. One that went really gangbuster was kayaking in the mangroves, which was fully booked for days.
“Towards the end of last year, however, and as travel began, we began to see the need for quarantine hotels going up, and today we have more than 50 per cent of the hotels in Qatar operating as quarantine hotels. So about 70-plus properties do one-week stays – in some ways this is good business because it's a one-week stay, with food from the hotel.
“The tricky part is that this is not a regular tourism business. We need to transition this model from quarantine back to actual tourists, and that will happen gradually. As more and more people start getting vaccinated, they won't need to stay in a hotel for a quarantine and the rooms left empty can then be replaced by people who are also vaccinated but who are actual visitors and tourists.”
Hilton Salwa Beach Resort & Villas announced the opening of its new hotel accommodation including 84 beach villas and Qatar’s largest theme park, Desert Falls Water and Adventure Park. “Built on the border with Saudi, we think this one will do really well. Also, come Q4 we are looking to open a mall that rivals the biggest and snazziest malls in the region.”
Located in the heart of Lusail City, Place Vendôme is said to be opening later this 2021. It'll feature a canal running to the sea which will give visitors an open plaza experience overlooking the waters. The mixed-use development project will echo the high-end shopping street in Paris, Rue de la Paix. Across four floors, there'll be up to 600 retail outlets including luxury designer stores. It'll also host a wide range of dining options, a hypermarket, lively dancing fountain, family entertainment, and a cinema complex.
“I've worked for 11 years in corporate travel and ran a travel agency in Saudi Arabia, so I was travel trade – I was a tour operator, I understand ticketing and GDS. I have hired my international sales team from within the travel trade too and this is a huge plus because you often see in DMOs, that they have people who don't understand travel. My team understands it even better than me, and that team is out there talking to two operators, discussing packages and they are working with the DMCs here and with hotels, trying to align them better, according to their specific needs.”
“We believe in the travel trade but also we believe of course, in online and direct bookings and Qatar Airways.com, which is an important channel for us too.” It is important to note that Akbar Al Baker, Group CEO of Qatar Airways is also Secretary-General of Qatar National Tourism Council, which was established in November 2018 as part of efforts to restructure the sector. The QNTC’s work builds upon that of its predecessor, the Qatar Tourism Authority, but the new body has a wider mandate that includes coordinating, consolidating and focusing the efforts of officials and the various sector stakeholders.
“So, we cannot just focus on one distribution channel, we need to invest in tour operators, fam trips for tour operators, we need to invest in training them because what was done in the past is very basic compared to what we actually have to do. I am optimistic as we have a team of industry people that have relevant experience specific to their respective markets.
“With the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 on the horizon, we are looking forward to welcome the world but this will also put Qatar under the microscope. This is the first time FIFA World Cup takes place in the Middle East, it's going to be unique because demand will overwhelm supply and therefore, this World Cup would be much more challenging to optimise everything. We want people to have flight bookings, hotel bookings and tickets to the football matches, so everything is optimally matched up. We don’t want people staying here who don’t have a ticket or people who have tickets but no hotel bookings as that would be a waste. There’ a lot of discussions with the Supreme Committee about the right processes to go forward. How do we do this from a distribution side to make that optimum piece for it?