Building on the momentum of its World Cup success, Qatar’s capital is scoring highly across transport, tourism and culture projects as it looks to net its long-term goals for economic diversification.
The FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 will go down in history as far as football firsts are concerned. Not only did football legend Lionel Messi lift the World Cup for Argentina for the first time, but he also set the new FIFA World Cup appearance record at some 26 matches.
The tournament saw 172 goals scored, attracted 3.4 million stadium spectators (up from 3 million in 2018) and the final captivated some 1.5 billion global viewers according to FIFA, topped up with six billion social media engagements.
At that point in time, the eyes of the world were on Doha and its impressive 89,966-capacity Lusail Stadium – the largest stadium in the Middle East and one of seven built for the tournament. They were part of a whopping US$229 billion investment pumped into World Cup preparations in the decade leading up to the largest sporting event on Earth.
This remarkable outlay also gets etched in the record books, with FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 not only marking the first World Cup to be staged in the Middle East, but also the most expensive, with the amount spent exceeding the cost of all other World Cups combined, according to 2023’s Skift Advisory Thought Leadership Report.
So, the question is, was it worth it? What has Qatar, and more specifically, its economic powerhouse, Doha, gained from this mammoth investment, and will the legacy match expectations?
A national tourism vision
Staging the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 wasn’t a one-off boost, but part of a much larger masterplan for long-term economic development. Like many of the Gulf States, Qatar has ambitions to rapidly diversify its non-energy economy and its Qatar National Vision 2030 (QNV 2030) sets out a roadmap to achieve this.
Goals have been set around four pillars – environmental, human, economic and social development. They include establishing Doha as a regional tourism hub by tripling 2019 tourist numbers to reach seven million a year by 2030, and developing infrastructure to improve the quality of life for residents and visitors alike.
World Cup-related infrastructure ticked all these boxes, with significant investment in transport, including the Doha Metro (also due for further expansion) and tram service, the expansion of Hamad International airport, and the construction of a cruise terminal port.
More than 117,000 hotels rooms were made available for the tournament, and this growth continues, with 56,000 additional rooms to come online by 2025.
At the end of August 2023, Qatar had welcomed more than 2.56 million visitors, exceeding the full-year arrivals figures witnessed in 2022 and up 157 per cent compared to the same period the previous year, according to Qatar Tourism.
Hospitality giant Accor says Qatar Tourism’s promotional efforts, combined with the introduction of new infrastructure and leisure attractions, have led to a “noticeable increase” in leisure and group travel to Doha.
“Efforts to showcase the destination and the addition of new recreational options have made Qatar more appealing to a wider audience,” confirms Paul Stevens, the group’s chief operating officer for the premium, midscale and economy division in the Middle East, Africa and Turkey.
“This growing interest is especially evident among leisure travellers looking for diverse experiences and group segments attracted to the expanding array of attractions and events such the Deaf International Cricket Council World Cup, Asian Tennis Junior Championship, Qatar International Cup Grand Prix in Weightlifting, and more.” Doha was on the traveller map pre-World Cup, he says, but the event “amplified awareness in new source markets”.
Accor’s premium, midscale and economy division played a role in delivering a successful World Cup, he adds, launching three properties in the run-up to the event – Pullman Doha West Bay, Adagio Doha and Ibis Doha C-ring. Adding another 464 keys to the mix are Swissôtel Corniche Park Towers Doha and Swissôtel Residences Corniche Park Towers Doha, both opening soon in West Bay, with the latter meeting pent-up demand for extended-stay options.
Anyone who watched the World Cup would have been impressed by the seven new stadiums built for the tournament (the eighth, Khalifa International Stadium existed pre-World Cup). Now deemed global architectural icons, each is being used or repurposed under the Qatar Supreme Committee legacy plan.
The World Cup might be over, but Qatar remains a growing sports hub, and most of the stadiums will be used for other events, including the AFC Asian Cup Qatar 2024, which began on 12 January and runs until 10 February.
The Khalifa International Stadium continues to be the home of Qatar’s national team and hosts other large sporting events, while Stadium 974, built from 974 shipping containers, is being dismantled and donated.
Lusail and Al Bayt stadiums are being repurposed into community hubs. A sports medicine hospital is being built on part of the Al Bayt Stadium, which will retain its traditional Qatari tent design, and Lusail Stadium remains a focal point of the mega Lusail City development, which will include 22 hotels, golf courses and an amusement park when complete. It also includes the Lusail Boulevard business hub with integrated commercial components and the iconic sword-shaped Lusail Towers, which houses the Raffles and Fairmont hotels. Lusail City was recently designated the ‘Capital of Islamic Culture’ for 2030 at the Islamic World conference, recognising its status as a “historical cultural beacon”.
Construction picks up
The construction sector is also on track to grow 9.5 per cent between 2023 and 2030, according to Turner & Townsend’s Qatar Market Intelligence Autumn Q3 2023. The government’s QNV 2030 targets for transport and culture are driving this growth, it says, bolstered by multiple strategies including the 2050 Transport Plan.
The initiative encompasses the development of a long-distance and national rail network, which alongside the aforementioned Doha Metro, will form the backbone of a robust public transport network, supported by secondary systems ranging from automated people movers
to water taxi services.
Ramping up Hamad International airport’s role as a regional aviation hub is another focus, and the goal is to boost capacity from the current 53 million to 70 million passengers annually. This will help facilitate the expansion ambitions of national carrier Qatar Airways, which plans to grow its destination count to more than 255 from the current 170. Alongside this, a new cargo terminal capable of handling 3.2 million tonnes per year is also under construction.
Aligned with QNV 2030, Doha will also witness a notable surge in sustainable construction initiatives over the next few years, incorporating cutting-edge technologies designed to minimise environmental harm, Turner & Townsend’s report notes. Public sector organisations are setting the example it says, using digitisation to develop a green building industry.
The destination offering
Doha remains a hotbed of hotel development too, with more than 13,841 rooms across 49 hotel projects currently under construction, according to STR data. Many will be located in new destinations under construction including the West Bay North Beach Project, a landmark development in Doha, featuring more than 12 beaches, plus restaurants, cafes, playgrounds, and sports facilities. It aims to create a unique tourist destination, connecting West Bay to the Corniche waterfront. Others include Al Maha Island, an entertainment hub with attractions such as Lusail Winter Wonderland and a high-end dining district that’s home to Zuma and Nammos Beach Club, among others; plus Qetaifan Island where Qatar’s largest waterpark will open soon. Meryal Waterpark, featuring the world’s highest waterslide, is part of the hotly anticipated Rixos Qetaifan Island North Doha.
Qatar’s culture sector, integral to its national identity, continues to be enhanced and diversified, with infrastructure plans ranging from museum development and preserving UNESCO heritage sites, to building creative incubators that will host international talent, all of which is likely to leave a legacy that lasts for much longer than a month-long festival of football.
The city is already renowned globally for its Museum of Islamic Art and the National Museum of Qatar, both prominent heritage landmarks that reflect Qatar’s rich history and cultural evolution, and several new institutions are planned.
They include the Lusail Museum by Herzog & de Meuron, showcasing Orientalist art; the Qatar Auto Museum by OMA, dedicated to cars; and the Art Mill by Elemental, a museum of modern and contemporary art around twice the size of London’s Tate Modern. This trifecta will cement Doha’s position as a hub for arts, innovation and cultural exchange.
So too will the capital’s flourishing cultural events scene, which grows every year and includes festivals for food, films, fishing, books, kids and even beauty pageants for animals. Perhaps the best known is the Doha Cultural Festival held in March, celebrating Qatar’s heritage and culture with poetry readings, dance performances, and more.
New on the agenda and a coup for Qatar, is Expo 2023 Doha, a six-month event making history as the first A1 international horticultural exhibition staged in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Developed under QNV 2030, the six-month-long event, which runs until 28 March, 2024 and coincided with COP28 in Dubai in December, is themed ‘Green Desert, Better Environment’, and aims to promote sustainable innovations and combat desertification. It’s being staged at the 1.7 million-square-metre Al Bidda Park, and three million visitors are anticipated.
In with a sporting chance
Major sports events remain firmly on Qatar’s radar and it hopes the World Cup, which proved the Gulf State is capable of staging a huge world-class event, will be a springboard for hosting the biggest sporting event of all – the 2036 Summer Olympics.
Earlier bids for this event have failed, with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) doubting Qatar’s capability to host 10,500 athletes across 32 sports along with millions of spectators, but its World Cup success and continued investment in infrastructure may now up its chances.
In the meantime, Doha will continue to notch up other global sports events, ranging from the opening race of the World Endurance Championship in 2024 and the World Table Tennis Championships in 2025 to the Asian Games in 2030, while the F1 Grand Prix is now an annual fixture.
Of course, its neighbour, Saudi Arabia, is now a major contender for major sports events too, ramping up the regional competition, but with a World Cup in its pocket, Doha is certainly in the running.
With ‘brand’ perceptions of the destination enhanced post-event – 35.2 per cent of respondents to the Skift survey said their sentiment towards the country had improved following the football tournament, and 35.4 per cent indicated they were more willing to travel there – spectators won’t be in short supply.
New Doha properties worth checking out – or checking into
Launching later this year, Andaz Doha is a lifestyle hotel located in West Bay, one of the city’s major arts hubs. Close to most embassies, financial institutions and luxury shopping malls, it looks set to be a foodie hotspot, with signature restaurants including Salt Road, a venue showcasing South African cuisine with a salty edge; Mr. & Mrs Hawker, serving Singaporean street food; and Mumble Jungle, an Afro-Cuban inspired bar. There will be 256 rooms, 36 suites and for longer stays, 56 residences, plus a spa, fitness centre, pool and meeting facilities. Pets are welcome too. hyatt.com
Rixos Qetaifan Island Doha
Arguably one of Doha’s most anticipated hotels, the Rixos Qetaifan Island North Doha was due to open at time of press. Aside from playing host to the Meryal waterpark with 21 rides and the highest waterslide in the world at 80 metres, true to the Rixos brand, the 345-room property will be a hub for entertainment, home to a souq (market), beach club, spa and fitness concept, plus a tasty gastronomic offering including a steakhouse and French brasserie. rixos.com
Waldorf Astoria Doha West Bay
Hot off the heels of the Waldorf Astoria Lusail opening its doors in November 2022, just in time for the World Cup, the Hilton brand’s second property has just opened, but this time in the heart of Doha’s diplomatic area in West Bay. Housed in a 44-storey tower, the 283 rooms and suites are Art Deco inspired, while Peacock Alley of Waldorf Astoria New York fame is immortalised, serving signature dishes such as red velvet cake and Eggs Benedict. For more bites of the Big Apple in Doha, there’s a New York-inspired mixology bar and Tribeca Market, a gourmet food emporium. A four-floor wellness sanctuary includes a fitness centre, swimming pools and a spa. hilton.com
Riviera Rayhaan by Rotana Doha
Also opening soon, this four-star property, just 20 minutes from Hamad International airport and close to Doha’s key business districts and major tourism attractions, will offer 185 rooms and suites; four dining venues, including Mediterranean restaurant Salvia; Rotana’s signature Bodylines Fitness and Wellness Club with gym, spa and rooftop pool; and three meeting rooms for up to 100 guests. Conveniently, Bin Mahmoud station on the new Doha Metro system is a two-minute walk away. rotana.com
Words: Gemma Greenwood