Published: 28/09/2012 - Filed under: Archive » 2012 » October 2012 » Destinations » Features » Features » Destinations » Features » Destinations » Middle East and Africa » Archive » 2012 » October 2012 »
The Qatari capital may be hosting the World Cup in ten years’ time, but it plans to take centre stage for much longer than that, says Rose Dykins.
As I watch the women’s final of the Qatar Open on a cool spring evening, the tense silence at the Khalifa International Tennis Complex is broken by the echoes of the call to prayer from the minaret of a nearby mosque. The haunting melody resonates across the city, causing the occasional member of the crowd to turn their head, while the players carry on unperturbed. It’s a subtle reminder of what was here long before the stadiums and the skyscrapers – 90 per cent of which have been around for fewer than ten years.
The scale of Doha’s development is mind-boggling. From its humble roots as a pearl-fishing port surrounded by endless desert, the discovery of oil in the late 1930s and natural gas in the 1970s led to the rapid expansion of the nineties that created a new cityscape of glinting structures along the Corniche. And now, having enjoyed a sustained period of economic growth – last year Qatar’s GDP growth rate was almost 19 per cent (the UK’s was just 0.8 per cent) – it is taking its next stride forward.
A five-year national development strategy for 2011-2016 aims to achieve “balanced and sustainable growth” through “responsible use of resources and continuous modernisation and development of public institutions to ensure high-quality public services”. The wider picture is set out in Qatar’s National Vision 2030, which states that by this time the country will be “capable of sustaining its own development and providing for a high standard of living for all of its people for generations to come”.
Securing the accolade of hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2022 has been a big driving factor in deciding where investment will be placed – and when it will be fulfilled. Aside from the nine new stadiums being built across the country (plus three more being renovated), the coming decade will see a boom in hotel openings. “More than US$100 billion of infrastructure is due to be completed before the World Cup,” says Russell Meara, account director for Qatar Tourism in the UK. “There will be 77 new hotels, providing 85,000 rooms.”
These include Doha’s first Premier Inn, due to open next year, as well as the kind of high-end addresses the city is more commonly accustomed to – Shangri-La and Traders are both set to debut in Doha in the first quarter of next year, while St Regis, Crowne Plaza, Intercontinental and Hilton Hotels and Resorts have all opened properties this year. Four Seasons is unveiling a second hotel in the city in 2014.
Following the opening of the ultra-modern Qatar National Convention Centre at the end of last year, the 90,000 sqm Doha Exhibition and Convention Centre is set to open next year in the West Bay area of the city, and will connect to the Sheraton Doha Resort and Convention hotel via an underground tunnel.
Big investment is also being made in transport infrastructure. Having been scheduled to be unveiled this year, the New Doha International airport, managed by national carrier Qatar Airways, is now expected to open in the second half of 2013 (see panel overleaf). A 15-station metro system is due for completion in 2016.
While putting such facilities in place will enhance what Doha already offers as a business hub, it’s hoped that the World Cup will transform the city into something it has not been widely seen as – a holiday destination. The Qatar Tourism Authority’s goal is to increase leisure tourism by 20 per cent over the next five years. Considering that 95 per cent of its visitors are currently here on business, it has some way to go to reach that target.
Helping to draw people in are world-renowned cultural institutions such as the Museum of Islamic Art, where displays of intricately adorned objects reveal the importance of art in everyday life in Qatar. There’s also a general consensus that compared with some of its neighbours in the Gulf, Doha has retained more of its ethnic and historical authenticity.
The challenge Doha faces is creating attractions that have an enduring mass appeal. This is perhaps why investing in world-class sport facilities that are capable of hosting global tournaments has been paramount to Doha’s agenda.
“If we look at tourism in general, I believe we have too many religious and historical festivals, when sport is much more attractive to tourists, especially when you have an international event – just look at London 2012,” says Sherif Sabry, sales and marketing director for the five-star Torch hotel. “Also, compared with 20 to 30 years ago, sport is much more important to people’s lives – people take much better care of their health, for example, and I think this is something that has encouraged Doha to really go for sport.”
Four years before Doha won the World Cup bid, the city hosted the 2006 Asian Games – a multi-event athletics tournament that welcomed 10,000 competitors from 45 countries. It then hosted the FINA Diving World Cup in 2009 – which will return in 2014 – and the AFC Asian Cup last year. Qatar also bid to host the Olympics in both 2016 and 2020 – both failed, but such are the country’s aspirations, a third bid for 2024 is still being funded.
“Qatar is committed to showing the world itself and the heart of its people, and sport is the only universal activity to be able to encapsulate or convey these values,” states the website of Doha’s Aspire Zone, which houses one of the largest multi-purpose sports centres in the world.
A 25-minute drive from the centre (traffic permitting) will bring you to the Aspire Zone. The Torch hotel, a colossal mesh-metal tower shaped like an egg-timer, is the first thing you will see – the 300-metre-tall structure bore the flames of the torch for the 2006 Asian Games at its top. Officially opened in June, it has 167 rooms and is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World. By night, multicoloured kinetic light displays illuminate its exterior, acting as a beacon for its sporty surrounds.
Ascend to the top and you can enjoy 360-degree views of the vast area that makes up the Aspire Zone. You can spy on the 50,000-capacity Khalifa International Stadium, the 15,500-seat Aspire Dome sport arena, the Aspire Sports Academy for Sports Excellence (with seven outdoor football pitches), the Hamad Aquatic Centre, complete with two Olympic-sized swimming pools and two diving pools, and the lush, 88-hectare Aspire park – encircled by both a running track and a horse-riding trail. Guests at the Torch can use the facilities for free (squash, basketball, volleyball and handball venues are also available, along with sports rehabilitation services) and the hotel has proved a popular location for winter camps for several European and Australian football teams.
Sabry says: “We began with eight football pitches – now we have 13. In September we were set to open the anti-doping laboratory [the first in the Middle East and West Asia] and there are some additional entertainment projects planned for the Aspire Park.”
Elsewhere, work has begun on developing Lusail City, a self-contained 38 sq km eco-city about 50km from the centre, where the opening and final matches of the World Cup will be held in a 86,250-capacity stadium that will reportedly “represent a quantum leap in terms of football stadium design”. Named after the Arabic for “desert flower”, Lusail is being designed and developed by Doha-based company Qatari Diar, with the first phases scheduled for completion in 2015.
So what will the World Cup 2022 be remembered for? In its bid, Qatar proposed to stage the first ever carbon-neutral Cup. “The new stadiums will have a solar panel system whereby energy will be used to [power] air conditioning for players and fans,” Meara says. “All stadiums will have air conditioning using environmentally friendly technology.”
Despite efforts such as these to counter the country’s soaring summer temperatures of up to 50ºC, concerns still remain about whether it will prove unbearably hot for international visitors – and the players. At the time of going to press, FIFA vice-presidents were debating whether the tournament should be moved to winter months for the first time in history, or whether matches should be played at night.
“The weather will not be an obstacle,” Sebry insists. “Every year, more and more sporting events are being scheduled for Doha. Part of FIFA’s bid for 2022 was that there would be air conditioning in the stadiums, and what they are doing with infrastructure will be far beyond anyone’s imagination.”
Having been a resident of Doha on and off for 15 years, Sebry is well placed to comment on how the city will react to an influx of football fans. “Doha is not a different planet,” he says. “Apart from the fact that a large proportion of Qataris are educated in the US and Great Britain, they are human beings – some support drinking, some don’t.”
It seems reductive to base a country’s suitability to host a football tournament on whether fans will be able to drink beer in public, particularly after the success of London 2012, which has generally inspired a renewed faith in the more noble values of sport. Besides, while Qatar eagerly awaits its time on the global stage, the World Cup is just one step in its long-term aspiration to become an epicentre of sporting culture.
Come 2017, when the results of the 2024 bid are announced, Qatar’s huge budget, cutting-edge technology and staggering ability to transform itself could make it a very exciting Olympic host.
2013: The arrival of New Doha International airport
Located just 4km from Doha International airport, the New Doha International airport (NDIA) is taking shape, costing over US$15.5 billion and with more than 60 per cent built on reclaimed land.
Originally scheduled to open on December 12, 2012, the airport is now due to begin serving passengers in the second half of next year – the delay is down to the airport operator deciding to part company with a key contractor.
Qatar Airways will manage the new airport. In an interview with The Moodie Report, the airline’s chief executive officer, Akbar Al Baker, said: “Some NDIA facilities will open around the end of this year, including cargo, the VIP Terminal and the maintenance base for Qatar Airways. We have already started the operational readiness programme. We want a world-class facility – we will not compromise on quality [or] standards.”
The 2,200-hectare NDIA will initially cater for 28 million passengers per year – once fully operational, it will have the capacity for 50 million passengers annually – and the existing Doha International airport will no longer be used.
Facilities that will be ready when the first phase is complete include a 600,000 sqm, three-storey terminal – 40,000 sqm of which will be dedicated to retail facilities and passenger lounges. There will be two runways measuring 4,850 metres and 4,250 metres in length respectively – both accommodate A380 aircraft, for which six of the airport’s 41 contact gates will be dedicated.
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