By JON GAMBRELL, Associated Press
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The FIFA World Cup may be bringing as many as 1.2 million fans to Qatar, but the nearby flashy emirate of Dubai is also looking to cash in on the major sports tournament taking place just a short flight away.
Some soccer fan clubs have already said they’ll be commuting to Qatar during the cup on 45-minute flights from Dubai, the skyscraper-studded, beachfront city-state in the United Arab Emirates. Other fans plan to sleep on cruise ships or camp out in the desert amid a feverish rush for rooms in Doha.
Dubai’s airlines, bars, restaurants, shopping malls and other attractions now hope to benefit, further boosting their rebounding tourism industry in the crucial fall and winter months after the blows delivered by the coronavirus pandemic.
“If you can’t stay in Qatar, Dubai is the place you’d most like to go as a foreign tourist,” said James Swanston, a Middle East and North Africa expert at Capital Economics. “It’s somewhere safe, somewhere more liberal in terms of Western norms. It’s the most attractive destination.”
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Now home to the world’s tallest building, cavernous malls — including one with an indoor ski slope — and thriving nightclub scene, Dubai has seen explosive growth fueled by its boom-and-bust real estate market that’s transformed the one-time pearling village over the last 20 years.
Its long-haul carrier Emirates helped make Dubai International Airport the busiest in the world for foreign travel and provides a steady stream of new visitors who stay for layovers or longer. And while still an autocratic sheikhdom like its other Gulf Arab neighbors, Dubai has a relatively more-liberal view on drinking and nightlife.
In the lead-up to the tournament, concerns about hotel room space and high prices for the rooms available have trailed Qatar, which lacks hotel capacity for all teams, workers, volunteers and fans at the World Cup. So Doha has created camping and cabin sites, hiring cruise ships, and encouraging fans to stay in neighboring countries and fly in for games.
Qatar has estimated it will have 45,000 hotel rooms for the tournament.
Surrounding nations, like Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, also suggest they could see a spike in visitors — even though Bahrain is the only among them that allows alcohol. Even Iran, months ago, suggested developing plans for World Cup tourists to stay on its Kish Island. Apparently, nothing came of the idea and now the Islamic Republic is gripped by nationwide protests.
Meanwhile, Dubai has over 140,000 hotel rooms, putting it easily into the top 10 destinations worldwide as far as available hotel rooms go, said Philip Wooller, a senior director at STR, a company that monitors the hotel industry. Dubai also offers price ranges greater than what Qatar can at the moment, given the demand, he said.
“I think Dubai is an incredibly eclectic city,” Wooller said. “You can buy a room for $100 or you can buy a room for $5,000.”
Still, he added, he expects “Qatar will be able to accommodate most of the fans coming to the World Cup (but) there will be a knock-on in Dubai.”
Dubai appears fully poised to take advantage of the tournament.
Its low-cost carrier, FlyDubai, plans as many as 30 round-trip flights a day during the World Cup, shuttling fans between Dubai’s Al Maktoum International Airport at Dubai World Central, or DWC, in the city-state’s southern reaches, to Doha International Airport, Qatar’s old main airport.
Other airlines that may use Al Maktoum airport include KLM, Qatar Airways and Wizz Air, while private jets will fly from there as well to the tournament, said Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports. That could help boost the profile of an airfield that Dubai hopes will expand in the future as Dubai International Airport nears its capacity.
“It’s a great experience for us to see DWC suddenly so busy for the World Cup,” he said. “It will give exposure to the convenience of the airport for so many people that (airlines may) actually favor operating from there.”
The expected economic boost from the World Cup for Dubai comes after its turnaround since suffering through the pandemic. It spent billions for its delayed Expo 2020 world’s fair — which largely attracted visitors already in the UAE.
Dubai, like much of the world, had a lockdown early in 2020. However, by July that year, it announced it was reopening for tourists. Though Dubai faced a surge of international criticism when cases spread from the emirate months later, around New Year, Dubai and the rest of the UAE widely rolled out vaccines.
The UAE dropped its mandatory mask policy about a month ago.
“Dubai is on a lot of people’s radars as one of the most phenomenal places to come and visit,” said Dennis McGettigan, the CEO of an eponymous empire of Irish bars in Dubai and elsewhere. “And I think the World Cup has added a layer” of desire to visit.
McGettigan said his bar business is already up as much as 40% on its sales, compared to 2019, something he linked to pent-up demand for socializing after the worst days of the virus. He said he’s overstaffed his locations and expects strong business through the tournament.
But McGettigan and others acknowledged headwinds Dubai faces in attracting World Cup tourists — the strong U.S. dollar. The Emirati dirham has long been pegged to the dollar, making a Dubai trip now more expensive for those using British pounds, euros and other currencies.
Other financial dangers also lurk for tourist-reliant Dubai, built on the promise of globalization.
“We still need to be cautious of global economic pressures, including rising interest rates, high oil and commodity prices, supply chain issues that are creating inflationary pressures which could impact Dubai’s economic recovery,” said Sapna Jagtiani of S&P Global Ratings.
McGettigan doesn’t expects that to be too much of a damper. His firm also will be organizing a massive fan zone venue in the grassy expanses of Dubai Media City, complete with musical performances, massive televisions and even a winter-themed area in Dubai’s desert environs.
“I, for one, am absolutely delighted to see everything back on full steam ahead and actually a little bit more,” he said.
Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Jerusalem contributed to this report.
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