Qatar’s hosting of the world athletics championships brought criticism for poor attendances and hot conditions for road events but there was something else which struck many visitors about 2022 World Cup host nation – a lack of things to do.
Many first-time visitors, finding the city to be car-orientated and lacking attractions, spent much of their spare time in shopping malls.
The difficulty of finding alcohol, sold only in a handful of authorised places at prices which start at around $15 for a half litre of beer, was also a talking-point.
The Gulf state was named as one of the world’s 10 unfriendliest cities for visitors by the Conde Nast Traveller magazine in 2016 with readers complaining it was ugly and with “horrible” traffic.
Meanwhile, online forums for foreign residents are littered with complaints that the city is dull, albeit safe.
“We are married without kids and found Doha to be extremely boring about 95% of the time, as there is a shocking lack of things to do in a city of this size,” said one on the website Tales from a Small Planet.
It begs the question: can Qatar keep the fans entertained at the 2022 World Cup, where supporters of all 32 teams will descend on a single city, and will they come in the first place – particularly the buoyant Latin Americans who livened up the last two World Cups?
A further complication is that the country is currently under a boycott imposed by neighbours Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates, plus Egypt, who accuse it of supporting terrorism. Doha denies the allegations.
The spat between Qatar and the four Arab countries has cut the number of direct flights to Doha and those operated by state airline Qatar Airways have to make lengthy diversions.
Dubai in the UAE could offer a potential reprieve for 2022 World Cup fans seeking entertainment. However, those travelling between Doha and the UAE have to fly through a third country because of the boycott, compared to what was once a roughly a one-hour direct flight.
Nasser al-Khater, chief executive of the 2022 World Cup, promised in a recent interview with a group of reporters, that Qatar expected one million fans and there would be plenty to keep them occupied on non-match days.
“When their teams are not playing, there is a lot of things they can do,” he said, adding they could go to other matches thanks to the proximity of the eight hosting stadiums.
Khater said that alcohol would be more easily accessible and affordable while the organising committee recently published a list of “10 things to do in Qatar besides football”.
These included a stroll on the seven-kilometre waterfront promenade, bartering at the Waqif souq, visiting museums and “shop until you drop”.
The country has tried to make itself more attractive to tourists and launched a “Summer in Qatar” initiative this year to try to attract visitors during the brutally hot months of June, July and August.
A sleek new metro opened this year and is expanding and, although stations appear isolated, they are served by feeder buses and a discounted taxi service.
The World Cup organisers have not yet announced their visa policy for 2022 and whether fans will be allowed in without tickets or accommodation.
However, the country relaxed its visa requirements two years ago. Citizens of more than 80 countries, including all in South America and Europe, have been granted visa-free travel while e-visas for the remainder are generally issued in four days.
“Eighty-five nations can come and visit Qatar without a visa making it certainly easier to visit than any World Cup in Europe or the United States,” said Andreas Krieg, assistant professor at King’s College London who has previously worked as a consultant in a Qatari military academy.
“Considering that it will be between 20–25 degrees Celsius, I would think that this makes actually for a great backdrop for fan zones, public viewings etc.”
However, others have their doubts, suggesting that organisers of the athletics championships failed to understand that it takes more than a shiny, air-conditioned stadium to make a success out of an event.
“I am not sure that Qatar understands visitors and their needs sufficiently well nor do I think visitors to Qatar are as open-minded and understanding as they could be,” said Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Britain’s Salford Business School.
Chadwick feared that fans from outside the Middle East could indeed be put off by “prevailing perceptions of the region across the world, the likely costs of being there and a possible feeling that low attendances might undermine the event experience”.
He added: “It seems to me that Qatar needs a holistic strategy for fan engagement, otherwise it could be exposed again to the criticisms it has just faced with the IAAF World Championships.”