COVID-19 has undoubtedly had a massive impact on the global tourism industry, perhaps none more so than in Europe, where many countries are considering or have already reopened resorts to limit the damage. While Qatar’s tourism sector remains small by comparison, there can be no denying that it has also taken a hit. However, this is not the first time the country has confronted an existential challenge to this increasingly important economic activity.
Tourism makes a formidable contribution to the global economy. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, in 2019 the sector accounted for 10.3% of global GDP and approximately 330 million jobs. Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 has been nothing short of a disaster for this vital sector. Thanks to lockdowns and other precautionary measures, this past April and May witnessed a near 100% reduction in tourist arrivals worldwide.
The United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) warns that COVID-19 might yet result in the loss of 1.1 billion tourist arrivals, $1.2 trillion in revenues and 120 million jobs. Hotels are already feeling the pinch, with the Intercontinental Group expecting revenue per available room — a commonly used indicator — to have dropped by 80% in April. Other hotel chains have made equally gloomy predictions.
Though not as developed as major destinations in Europe, North America and further afield, Qatar’s tourist sector has also suffered under COVID-19. Statistics for March indicate a 78% reduction in tourist arrivals, with the figures for April and May expected to be even worse. With lockdown measures still firmly in place, it remains to be seen how many of the country’s restaurants and local tourist facilities will emerge from the pandemic unscathed.
Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup 2022 nevertheless underlines why its tourist industry needs to make as full a recovery as possible from COVID-19. It is expected that millions of fans will visit the country for the world’s top football tournament. Most will require accommodation and entertainment beyond the stadiums.
In keeping with governments around the world, Qatar has initiated general support and subsidized loan programs to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus on business revenues. The country can also draw inspiration from a number of international efforts to restart the global tourism sector. These include 23 actionable recommendations developed by the UNWTO to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, accelerate recovery through national policies and build resilience through lessons learned.
In a similar vein, the European Union has developed a comprehensive framework for rejuvenating its tourism sector. This calls for a recovery strategy and a common approach to lifting travel restrictions between member states. Additional measures include the development of detailed health and safety measures for hospitality establishments and the transportation of passengers and personnel to and from tourist destinations. In the case of the latter, Greece has already issued a list of protocols for traveling around its network of islands by ferry.
When it comes to small states, Singapore has developed two initiatives that might be of interest to Qatar. The Marketing Partnership Program aims to improve cooperation and encourage synergies between stakeholders in the city state’s tourist industry. To assist, the program makes funds available for marketing costs and collaboration between businesses. From there, the Stories Content Fund encourages local and global content creators to create compelling and positive stories about Singapore’s tourist sector.
Been Here Before
These are by no means the only initiatives Qatar might look to when reawakening its currently dormant tourist sector. There is also a case for taking the best ideas from as many global efforts as possible to develop a hybrid action plan with two interconnected phases.
Focusing on the short term, phase one is concerned with mitigating the impact of COVID-19 and restarting tourism activities following the easing of travel and social distancing measures. Taking a cue from Singapore, Qatar could develop public relations activities to highlight that the country is a safe and interesting place to visit. This could be supported by tourism vouchers for Qatar Airways stopover passengers, an initiative that resonates with the EU’s travel vouchers program.
Phase two is focused on strategic and structural issues. As per the mandate of the Qatar National Tourism Council, the country should accelerate efforts to develop a clear vision for its tourist industry. Inspiration could be drawn from Australia’s bid to become “the most desirable and memorable destination on earth” or Morocco’s practical goal to make tourism an engine of development. Either way, Qatar needs to factor agility and resilience into its future tourism sector. This entails working with stakeholders to identify challenges as well as opportunities to diversify the country’s tourism offerings. Doing so will help shield Qatar from the volatility of limited market penetration.
It should also be remembered that Qatar has prior experience of navigating its tourism industry through difficult times. In 2016, almost 3 million tourists visited the country, the majority coming from fellow Gulf Cooperation Council and Arab states. Tourist arrivals have nevertheless diminished in recent years due to the reduction of visitors from the states involved in the ongoing blockade of Qatar. According to the Qatar Planning and Statistics Authority, arrivals from the Arab world declined by 76% between 2016 and 2019.
Qatar has responded with a strategy to diversify tourist arrivals and new tourism markets. In the immediate aftermath of the blockade, nationals from 80 countries were granted visa-free entry into the country. The development of the Qatar National Museum and other tourist attractions was also expedited. High-profile marketing campaigns such as Qatar Airways’ “A World like Never Before” continue to highlight the diversity of the country’s tourist sector.
Such initiatives undoubtedly contributed to a 38% increase in tourist arrivals from other parts of the world between 2016 and 2019. Additionally, hotel bookings rose from 4.97 million nights in 2016 to 5.38 million in 2018, suggesting that the average length of stay in Qatar has increased. The country’s museums also benefited from a fresh approach to attracting tourists, with visits rising from 477,000 in 2016 to 597,000 just two years later. According to the UNWTO, Qatar’s tourism sector generated $5.6 billion in 2018 despite the negative impact of the blockade.
Qatar’s response to the blockade offers key insights into how tourism can get back on track once the worst of COVID-19 is over. Tourism sectors around the world will need to act quickly and decisively upon the resumption of business as usual. Well-executed, creative public relations campaigns should highlight what makes a country, resort or attraction a compelling place to visit. Diversity, safety and resilience will also be at the heart of tomorrow’s tourism strategies.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.