Qatar Today - - AFFAIRS > VIEWPOINT - BY OLIVER CORNOCK Man­ag­ing Ed­i­tor, Middle East Ox­ford Busi­ness Group

The cruise sea­son was of­fi­cially launched on Oc­to­ber 26, 2017 with the ar­rival of the Se­abourn

En­core at Doha Port. A to­tal of 21 lin­ers are ex­pected to call at the port be­fore the sea­son closes in April.

In a first for Qatar, two mega­ships – clas­si­fied as ves­sels with a ca­pac­ity of be­tween 2,500 and 6,000 pas­sen­gers – will be call­ing at the port in the com­ing months. Ac­cord­ing to Qatar Tourism Au­thor­ity (QTA), the ships will be joined by five lin­ers mak­ing their maiden voy­age to the coun­try.

A to­tal of 47,000 crew and pas­sen­gers came ashore in the 2016/17 sea­son, rep­re­sent­ing a 1,000% in­crease on the pre­vi­ous year's num­bers. The ar­rival of the larger ves­sels this sea­son will play a piv­otal role in im­prov­ing last year's fig­ures. Fur­ther, pas­sen­ger growth is also pre­dicted through to the 2019/20 sea­son, when the QTA is tar­get­ing 300,000 cruise-line vis­i­tors.

In line with the au­thor­ity's strat­egy, ground was bro­ken ear­lier this year on the QR2 bil­lion ($549.3 mil­lion) re­de­vel­op­ment of Doha Port, which is set to be trans­formed into a ded­i­cated cruise ter­mi­nal. While its full com­ple­tion is sched­uled for 2022, the in­fras­truc­ture re­quired to al­low five ves­sels to dock si­mul­ta­ne­ously is ex­pected to fin­ish by 2020.

Next Chap­ter strat­egy tar­gets higher num­ber of ar­rivals

The month of Septem­ber wit­nessed the coun­try set out its broader am­bi­tions for the tourism in­dus­try through the launch of the Next Chap­ter of the Qatar Na­tional Tourism Sec­tor Strat­egy 2030.

The de­vel­op­ment blue­print out­lines a num­ber of tar­gets for the 2017-23 pe­riod, in­clud­ing: at­tract­ing 5.6 mil­lion tourists per year, dou­bling the 2016 to­tal, achiev­ing

a 72% oc­cu­pancy rate in Qatar's ho­tels, up from an av­er­age of 62% in the first half of 2017, and rais­ing the sec­tor's di­rect con­tri­bu­tion to GDP – from QR19.8 bil­lion ($5.4 bil­lion) to QR41.3 bil­lion ($11.3 bil­lion).

Changes to the sec­tor's governance were also de­lin­eated in the plan, with the du­ties and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of QTA to be in­cor­po­rated into a new en­tity, the Na­tional Tourism Coun­cil (NTC).

The NTC's main tasks will be at­tract­ing in­vest­ment, over­see­ing strate­gic plan­ning and reg­u­lat­ing the sec­tor. To achieve its goals, the coun­cil will be given charge of three new en­ti­ties: de­vel­op­ing new largescale tourism prod­ucts and of­fer­ings, con­sol­i­dat­ing the work of ex­ist­ing busi­ness events stake­hold­ers, and pro­mot­ing Qatar as a desti­na­tion in­ter­na­tion­ally.

Bi­lat­eral con­nec­tions and visa re­forms to ex­pand in­ter­na­tional reach

As Qatar looks to off­set a down­turn in GCC tourists due to the block­ade im­posed in June by a num­ber of the bloc's mem­ber states, work is pro­gress­ing to mar­ket the coun­try's tourism po­ten­tial out­side the re­gion.

In line with these aims, QTA an­nounced plans in Oc­to­ber to open of­fices in both In­dia and Rus­sia. Soon af­ter, news broke that the au­thor­ity would be col­lab­o­rat­ing with Wel­come Chi­nese, a hospi­tal­ity stan­dard ded­i­cated to Chi­nese tourists. The ini­tia­tive is ex­pected to help the Qatari in­dus­try meet the re­quire­ments of vis­i­tors from China.

How­ever, ar­guably the big­gest move taken to­wards boost­ing for­eign ar­rivals in re­cent months was the decision to al­low visa-free en­try for cit­i­zens of 80 coun­tries.

The an­nounce­ment in early Au­gust brought into im­me­di­ate ef­fect visafree en­try for el­i­gi­ble trav­ellers with a con­firmed re­turn ticket, and came on the back of the cre­ation of an e-visa plat­form a month ear­lier.

Travel had al­ready been made eas­ier in Novem­ber 2016 when Qatar Air­ways and QTA launched a tran­sit visa scheme, al­low­ing pas­sen­gers of any na­tion­al­ity with a minimum tran­sit time of five hours at Ha­mad In­ter­na­tional Air­port to re­main in the coun­try for up to 96 hours.

Ac­cord­ing to the tourism au­thor­ity, the scheme led to a 39% year-on-year (y-o-y) in­crease in stopover vis­i­tors in the first half of 2017.

Vis­i­tors from Europe and the Amer­i­cas on the up­swing

An up­swing in vis­i­tors from out­side the GCC in 2017 in­di­cates the re­cent moves to strengthen and diver­sify the tourism in­dus­try are pay­ing off. Fig­ures from QTA's lat­est Tourism Per­for­mance Sum­mary re­vealed that dur­ing the Jan­uary to Septem­ber pe­riod, vis­i­tors from Europe and the Amer­i­cas rose by 8% and 4% y-o-y, re­spec­tively.

Vis­i­tors from Africa also in­creased sig­nif­i­cantly – by 33% – although this re­gion rep­re­sents a smaller share of to­tal ar­rivals com­pared to other re­gions.

In con­trast, GCC vis­i­tors de­clined by 35% y-o-y, while ar­rivals from other Arab na­tions fell by 18%, a down­turn that is ex­pected to con­tinue fol­low­ing the in­tro­duc­tion of the block­ade in June

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