Editor’s Note: Skift has started a new series of interviews with CEOs of destination marketing organizations where we discuss the future of their organizations and the evolving strategies for attracting visitors. Read all the interviews as they come out here.
Drive around the 51 square miles that make up Doha, Qatar and visitors can see a combination of dazzling architecture and the pure blue gulf.
In the manufactured marketplace Souq Waqif, visitors can meet local Qataris or smoke shisha under a warm sky. And at the man-made island of Pearl-Qatar, they can sip mocha lattes or eat grass-fed hamburgers while shopping any number of brand name stores.
This is the Qatar that the country wants foreigners to learn about. A “world class hub with cultural roots” is how the Chairman of Qatar Tourism Authority H.E. Issa bin Mohammed Al Mohannadi describes it.
There is; however, another, just as real, side to the small Middle Eastern country of just over two million. Steps away from just-built blocks are massive construction sites and piles of uprooted palm trees. These sites are filled less with locals, who only make up a minority of the population, and more with foreign workers dressed in coveralls.
Qatar is in a period of development and it is going through the same steps that many developing countries have gone through before it. Tourism is at the center of its economic growth strategy as the country looks to ease its reliance on natural resources.
The Qatar Tourism Authority published its Qatar National Tourism Sector Strategy 2030 one year ago, which outlines a plan to double the impact of tourism on the GDP to 5.1 percent and to increase visitor arrivals by 11 percent to 7.4 million. The country has already reached some of its benchmarks outlined for 2015 exceeding its goals to welcome 1.7 million visitors and reach $2 billion in tourist spend.
Skift recently sat down with Qatar Tourism Authority Chairman Mr. Al Mohannadi in Doha to talk about the country’s strategies for tourism growth, its challenges, and what Mr. Al Mohannadi would say to tourists who have little interest in coming to country based on media reports. An edited version of the interview can be read below:
Skift: Qatar has just recently begun to invest in its tourism industry and there have been many changes in a short period of time. What of some of the major changes to Qatar’s tourism industry in the past couple of years?
H.E. Issa bin Mohammed Al Mohannadi: Understanding the importance of tourism is one of the major changes that has taken place over the last ten years. As a region, we became more conscious about the industry’s importance; hence, why there is more focus on developing this sector as compared to ten years ago.
It is a coincidence that we are having this interview while the oil price is in the low 50s. That, by itself, is an indication of what the Qatar National Tourism Sector Strategy 2030 was focusing on: To diversify the economy to focus less on hydrocarbon resources and diversify the non-hydrocarbon type of resources for the sustainability of the economy.
We always have believed that one option could be tourism. In Qatar, we have achieved major milestones. We have doubled the number of visitors to the destination from 1.4 million in 2008 to 2.6 million in 2013. To be able to nearly double this in five years is a huge. It takes some destinations with very strong infrastructure ten years to do this.
Qatar is, as you see, changing constantly. You can see buildings coming up and the landscape is changing constantly. That, by itself, has really positioned Qatar to attract more visitors.
A lot of the infrastructure that has been completed over the last ten years relates, specifically, to tourism. We have seen major projects coming up like Souq Waqif, Katara Village, the new Hamad International Airport, and the Gulf Rail Project.
We have been focusing more on our authentic experience type of projects. We have become a known destination, at least in the region, as compared to where we were five or ten years ago.
Skift: How has the consumer profile of visitors coming to the country changed in that time?
Al Mohannadi: This is one of the things that we tackled in the Qatar National Tourism Sector Strategy 2030. We have been clear and specific about diversifying the visitor segments coming to our destination. We wanted to make sure that we have people coming to visit us from the neighboring countries as well as also from other markets.
The position of Qatar itself is unique and, in a way, Qatar Airways is really fueling the change. It connects the east and the west and this has really contributed a lot to the diversification of our visitors.
We used to receive around 70 percent of visitors from the region and 30 percent from outside of that. The ratio has really improved. Today, 59 percent of visitors come from the region and 41 percent come from outside of that. That gives us comfort that we are moving the right direction. We did not want to heavily rely on one segment of visitor coming to the destination. If that stopped for some reason then we would be in big trouble. That’s why the diversification of the visitor base is so important for us.
We wanted to design the destination in a way that attracts or to appeals to people from the GCC and people in other markets. Qatar is not about building high-rise buildings or competing with a focus on adventure tourism. Rather, we are providing a very authentic type of tourism.
The museums, Souq Waqif, Katara, our castles, our heritages, the sand dunes and nature – they all give authentic experience to our visitors.
It’s not about building a modern building or focusing on an urban development as an attraction, but rather to really offer an authentic experience to our visitors.
That’s why we believe that Qatar will compete in attracting visitors from outside the region, by designing the destination in such a way that appeals to both markets.
We believe that with Qatar being a small country that visitors can interact with the locals. This is very important factor for us, because we believe that we have a very hospitable population. We are proud of this trait that we can offer to our international visitors.
If you go today to the places that I’ve mentioned then you will definitely interact with locals. There are locals that you can speak to and exchange views and ideas. That’s part of why we believe that tourism is a great industry that could really bring people closer together.
Skift: So often the people working in hotels or restaurants are not actually from the destination where people are visiting so it is interesting to hear your perspective on how visitors can interacts with Qataris.
There remains a lack of awareness in many countries about what Qatar is and what there is to do here. What are the most important marketing platforms that you’re using today to increase awareness of the Qatari culture and the activities available here?
Al Mohannadi: We have not yet opened or activated our marketing strategy in the U.S. because we are going country by country. We cannot be in all the markets at the same time; however, we are more or less done with the Europe now. We installed offices, which are working to achieve their targets. In 2015, we will do something in the U.S. to try to open dialogue. I hope that we’ll be able to raise awareness because the U.S. is a big country.
It’s not going to be easy for us to raise awareness throughout the whole U.S. but our focus can be to at least raise awareness about the destination in parts where Qatar Airways flies.
Skift: In the markets where you have had some more involvement already, what have been the most important or successful marketing platforms that you’ve employed?
Al Mohannadi: Marketing in general depends on the region. There are countries where using social media as a platform is very effective, such as in the GCC countries. In these markets, we also use typical marketing channels but we focus a lot of social media promotions because we know we can reach a bigger market.
In Europe, we have been focusing on sport because it is very popular there. The clubs in Paris, Germany and Barcelona really increase awareness of our destination.
Skift: Many travelers today are using their mobile phones within a destination to share photos and research activities on the ground. How are you responding to this change in travelers’ habits?
Al Mohannadi: Smartphone and tablets really are key to reaching out to people.
We have an app QT that visitors can use to decide where to stay and what activities to do. Another app OmniQ tells them what’s going on in the destination when they arrive. We are working with a number of initiatives where we bring things like Google Maps and other software to help put Qatar on the radar screen.
We also analyze feedback coming in from social media. We are moving away from the traditional way of travel planning. Travelers now read reviews before booking plane tickets or hotels. We are helping our hotels really focus on these kinds of reviews and feedback. We even review the performance of the hotel using these as an indicator.
If there’s negative feedback coming from a specific project that we have, we feed it back to the owner of that product whether it’s a tailor or a tourist attraction. That kind of interactive feedback is eventually going to create a really huge revolution when it comes to the quality of product that we offer. We are implementing a system where we gather feedback on a specific hotel from a lot of different channels.
Skift: There is so much construction and development happening right now in Qatar. What would you say to a tourist who decides to push off a trip to the country for a few years until more development is finished? What would you tell a tourist that you want in the country in 2015?
Al Mohannadi: There will always be changes in the destination and that’s something that we are proud of. We promise our visitors that, “Every year you come, you will see something new.” That’s certainly what we hear as feedback. Qatar is in a dynamic mode right now and there are a lot of things happening.
We could tell our visitor that it will not be the same. It’s going to be a new, different experience. We always tell visitors, “Come and enjoy the beach, nature, and cultural offering that we have in Qatar. Plus the luxury.” Our vision is to position Qatar as a world class hub that’s proud of its cultural roots.
Skift: In terms of the construction taking place, Qatar has received negative publicity in the global media. How would you encourage somebody to look past the negative reports to see what the destination offers?
Al Mohannadi: That’s a typical question that we always receive and the typical answer is, “Just come and see by yourself.” With the smartphones and social media, media is no longer the only way to discover a destination, the only way to receive the story.
We used to only depend on TV or newspaper to read about destination, but today travelers have multiple ways of getting to know a place or the truth about a story. We always encourage people that the best thing is to come and experience the destination and what it offers.
Qatar has been one of the safest countries in the region. We enjoy very low crime rates and have a very stable political system. While we’re in the middle of a region where there might be some political unrest, we are experiencing a very safe and calm environment.
We make sure that we are present in all the major international travel exhibitions and really communicate the story of Qatar. We need to tell what Qatar is all about. We as a tourism organization are obliged to really market Qatar in the way that it should be. I hope that negativity could be defused by a visit.
Skift: What’s the conversation that’s happening around upcoming sports events? What would you say to tourists reconsidering a trip to one of these events because of negative media attention?
Al Mohannadi: I always believe that any negative publicity that happens around events or activities in Qatar is not unique to the country. It’s happening everywhere. We have seen it in different destinations anytime there is a major event. It’s been a trend that the press will take a stand despite whether the destination is well developed or not. There is always a question mark; there is always a negative element.
The best way to tackle it is really to speak out about the destination, to make your message loud and clear to everybody, to open your doors for people to come and visit and enjoy their experience. We encourage people to make the judgment for themselves rather than hear it from someone else.
Skift: As Qatar has developed its own tourism product; have you seen competition among regional or international destination change?
Al Mohannadi: We, as human beings, are now very interested in visiting different places. It is a stupid decision for a country to start to copy another destination. For example, if I were to visit the United Stated then I would like to visit New York, Florida, California, Texas and so on. If these states are all similar in nature or product then there’s really no need for me to visit. It’s enough for me to reach New York. That’s how we are trying to position Qatar among our neighboring, and other, markets.
Skift: What countries or markets does QTA look to as a role model as it progresses with its 2030 vision?
Al Mohannadi: We are very keen to establish a unique and distinctive tourism identity for Qatar so we avoid identifying any specific role models. Having said that, we do of course monitor tourism trends and best practices around the region and the world.
It is important to stress that we view tourism as a global industry, and we see ourselves as much in competition with destinations in the Far East, Indian Ocean and Caribbean as we are with other neighbors in the Middle East.