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Qatar Working to Attract More U.S. Visitors, But May Have an Uphill Battle

17 May, 2017

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Travel, Sports Tourism May Already Be Leery of Destination for Various Reasons

To say Qatar has not enjoyed good press recently is putting it mildly. The host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup saw allegations of bribery and corruption in the selection process, and additionally faced strong criticism from Amnesty International regarding its treatment of those working on its sports venues.

Now, it’s trying to promote tourism from the U.S. – and those who routinely plan trips around World Cup play, and who have been exploring international destinations for sports events should know about that.

The 2022 event marks the first time the World Cup will be held in the Middle East, and in an Arab and a majority-Muslim country. Those last few facts about Qatar and its location have been enough to make American tourists leery, but Qatar is working to address fears and make planners more comfortable with recommending it as a destination for leisure travel, as well as sports.

According to an article in Travel Weekly, Qatar's promotions to the U.S. include several new and upcoming initiatives:

Economic Incentives: This summer, Qatar Airways, which flies to about 150 destinations worldwide, is offering passengers with connections in Doha a complimentary one-night stopover. The promotion, available via direct bookings on Qatar Airways' website, enables travelers to apply for a free transit visa and choose from four- and five-star hotels throughout Qatar's capital. Guests can add a second night for a $50 fee.

Trips and Tours: Activities such as desert safaris and city tours are being offered through Discover Qatar, the airline's newly created destination management company. Participating hotels in Doha include the upscale Four Seasons, Marriott Marquis, Radisson Blu and Oryx Rotana.

Making Outreach: During a familiarization trip for media and tour operators last month in Doha, the airline and the Qatar Tourism Authority announced that an agent training portal was in the works, though they did not specify a launch date. Agent fam trips are also forthcoming, they said.

Taking the Show on the Road: Qatar has also launched a series of publicity stopovers at major U.S. cities. The first event of several aimed at travel agents and planners took place on May 16 in Boston. Others will be held on June 15 in Atlanta, June 22 in Los Angeles, Aug. 3 in Washington and Sept. 14 in Chicago. (More information on those events is available here.)

Will it work? Hard to say. A lot of damage to Qatar’s reputation, much of which traces back to the 2022 World Cup awarding, will need to be undone. The allegations of FIFA bidding improprieties were only one issue. Amnesty International ‘s accusations certainly didn’t help.

Much criticism has also been given of the choice of Qatar as a host because of the heat, which caused the first-ever rescheduling of the World Cup from summer to November and December. (Even then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter later criticized the location and the rescheduling, calling it a mistake, and the scheduling change is expected to cause significant problems with currently existing league play.)

As a side note, the winter World Cup will have to compete with the NFL for coverage and interest within the U.S. – but that’s hardly a global issue.

Officials in Qatar have worked to counteract criticism, noting the soccer fields will employ cooling technologies to make them comfortable for players; they have also attempted to convey a more humanitarian image by stating that after the World Cup ends, the upper tiers of the stadiums will be disassembled and donated to countries with less developed sports infrastructure.

Fans in the LGBT community have continued to voice alarm about unequal treatment in Qatar, including the fact that homosexuality there is considered a crime, gay marriage is illegal and there are no laws against discrimination. (In fact, early on, Blatter recommended that gay men who want to go to the World Cup should "refrain from any sexual activities.")

Worries over women’s rights also remain strong among those in the U.S.; however, according to Your Middle East, a 2013 Thomson Reuters Foundation poll entitled Women’s Rights in the Arab World ranked Qatar fifth out of 22 Arab nations when it comes to women’s rights. Comoros led the way whereas Egypt came last.

Despite backing radical Islamic groups across the Middle East, such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Doha is trying to convey the image of a moderate Islamic nation where women are well-respected – but this may not always be the case. For example, although Qatari women can drive, unlike their counterparts in neighboring Saudi Arabia, they need their husbands’ consent to get a driver’s license.

The article adds, “Qatari women are well represented in the education sector and half of them work. They were granted equal suffrage in 1999, after Sheikh Hamad al-Thani approved a new constitution guaranteeing gender equality. Article 35 states that “all people are equal before the law. There shall be no discrimination on account of sex, origin, language or religion.”

There are other drawbacks, according to Business Insider, which ran a story with the pessimistic title of “14 Reasons the World Cup in Qatar is Going to be a Disaster.” And its last reason had less to do with civil rights and more to do with, well, traditions surrounding soccer:

14. They probably won't sell beer in the stadiums: There are select hotels and bars in Doha where you're allowed to drink. But you can't have alcohol or be drunk in public. It will be the most sober World Cup ever.”

Obviously, there are plenty of challenges to be overcome, but the efforts to promote tourism are still young, and Sports Destination Management will continue to follow this developing issue.

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