DUBAI (AFP) – With deluxe match packages selling for thousands of dollars and five-star hotels doing a brisk trade, a sheen of glamour coats Qatar’s World Cup despite football’s working-class roots.
A penchant for luxury in the energy-rich Gulf state, which has one of the world’s highest GDPs per head, has rubbed off on an unusually high-end edition of a tournament for the masses.
If you’re able to spring USD4,950 for a VIP ticket to a group game, you can enjoy drinks, a six-course meal and entertainment at a lounge overlooking the halfway line at Lusail Stadium, north of Doha.
Those with bottomless budgets in the resource-rich region have attractive accommodation options too, with one third-party site offering USD4,000-a-night hotel rooms and USD26,000 for a “head of state” suite – with a 30-night minimum stay.
Things are a little different for ordinary fans.
Cheaper options include a steel bed in a shared room in the semi-desert near the capital at USD84 a night, or accommodation on docked cruise ships from USD179 to USD800.
Stadium crowds will include Qatar’s migrant labourers, who were offered some tickets at SAR40 (USD11) to watch a sport whose players and core supporters are traditionally blue-collar.
According to executive director of Football Supporters Europe Ronan Evain, the onus on “premium” experiences has left some fans cold.
“It’s clear that there’s a focus on a type of premium tourism, but the vast majority that go to a World Cup are middle-class,” Evain told AFP.
“They’re not the sort of people who can afford to stay on a cruise liner at USD5,000 a week.”
The hordes of ticketless fans that usually descend on a World Cup will be reduced in number, as only ticket holders and up to three guests each can enter Qatar during the November 20 – December 18 tournament.
Many supporters will stay elsewhere in the Gulf and board the estimated 100-200 World Cup shuttle flights a day from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman. Even those options do not come cheap.
In Dubai, an hour’s flight away and expected to be a major destination, an official World Cup package costs USD1,500 for four nights in a shared room, including one return flight to Doha but no match tickets.
The Qatar World Cup is at least compact, with all eight stadiums in and around Doha – eradicating the cross-country travel needed at previous editions such as Brazil 2014 or Russia 2018.
“The problem with the World Cup in Qatar is that there are very few alternatives,” said Evain.
“At a World Cup in Brazil or Russia, you can take a train, hire a car, stay 200 kilometres away or come just for the day of the match.
“None of that is possible in Qatar. Either you can’t find accommodation or accommodation is too expensive,” he added.
“People are looking for a solution and for quite a few people the solution is to cancel, because they can’t afford this sort of budget.”
However, Executive Director of Expat Sport Sue Holt, the UAE agent for the official World Cup package provider, said there was a range of accommodation “to suit most budgets”.
The United States, Britain, France, Mexico, China and India were among the countries where fans were showing most interest in packages for the UAE, she said.
“Sports tourists generally tend to be older and travel in groups, which can be families, friends or sporting groups,” she said.
“Part of the appeal of this type of travel is that it is a collective, shared experience watching your favourite team or player together.”
These supporters “will include people who have never ventured to this region before”, added Holt.
According to Robert Mogielnicki, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, hosting the World Cup is about “prestige” for Qatar, a monarchy of just 2.8 million people, overwhelmingly expatriate workers.
“What the Qataris don’t want to happen is get stuck with an oversupply of tourism infrastructure for a segment of tourists unlikely to be a regular, consistent presence in the country,” he said, explaining the limited options.
“I suspect that the Qataris will keep looking to attract wealthier tourists from elite circles,” added Mogielnicki, who is also adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University and George Washington University.
“Lots of the momentum behind regional tourism projects, especially in Saudi Arabia, does seem to focus on high-end, luxury experiences these days.”