DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Travel to this World Cup should be easy in tiny host country Qatar after fans have traveled long distances between cities in the last three tournaments.
The eight stadiums in Qatar are located in or near the capital, so fans don’t have to go too far to get to the games – in theory. The country has called its World Cup green in part because of its compact nature, but the reality is very different.
Tens of thousands of overseas fans are choosing shuttle flights between Doha and neighboring Dubai for a number of reasons – high hotel prices, lack of accommodation and alcohol restrictions.
It may sound extreme, expensive and ecologically questionable, but the daily flights have become a popular choice as fans choose to stay somewhere other than Qatar.
Dubai, the free-roaming commercial capital of the United Arab Emirates, is the region’s top tourist destination outside of Doha. State carriers such as FlyDubai, the emirate’s low-cost airline, are providing resources and operating 10 times the usual number of flights to Doha.
Neighboring countries Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia have also organized air shuttles to capitalize on the World Cup tourism boom. Every few minutes a Boeing or Airbus rumbles over Doha’s old airport.
The concept of air shuttles isn’t new to the Gulf, where many who live and work in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia or arid Kuwait hop to Dubai for the weekend for free drinking and fun in the glitzy metropolis.
Unlike fans who had to travel long-haul flights at the World Cups in South Africa (2010), Brazil (2014) and Russia (2018), the Dubai-Doha route is shorter in most cases.
But short flights, often defined as journeys shorter than 500 kilometers (311 miles), are more polluting than long flights per person per kilometer traveled due to the large amount of fuel used to take off and land.
More than a dozen World Cup fans interviewed on Thursday who have chosen to stay in neighboring countries said cost matters. Many could not find affordable places to sleep in Doha or at all. As hotel prices skyrocketed in the months leading up to the tournament, thrifty fans sought spots in Qatar’s remote fan villages filled with canvas tents or shipping containers.
“We wanted to stay in Doha for five days. But it was too expensive. We didn’t want these weird fan zones,” said Ana Santos, a Brazilian fan who arrived with her husband at Doha airport on Thursday.
“In Dubai we found a chic hotel for not too much money. … The flights are so crowded that we are not the only ones.”
After eight years of idling, the former Doha airport is coming back to life as thousands of shuttle passengers squeeze through the concourses. On Thursday, Qataris in traditional dress distributed juicy dates and Arabic coffee to the arriving fans, who cheered and took photos while carrying their national flags.
Other fans on shuttle flights were put off by Qatar’s alcohol restrictions. The city’s few hotels are almost the only places that allow alcohol to be served after a last-minute ban on beer in stadiums. Doha’s only liquor store is only open to licensed Qatari residents.
Meanwhile, Dubai’s vibrant nightclubs, pubs, bars and other tourist attractions are teeming with spirits – and at lower prices than in Doha, where a single beer costs $14 at the official fan festival. Even in Abu Dhabi, the more conservative capital of the United Arab Emirates, tourists can buy alcohol in liquor stores without a license.
“We want to have a Dubai experience. That’s more interesting to us,” said Bernard Boatengh Duah, a doctor from western Ghana who has bought an all-inclusive hotel package in Dubai that gives him matchday flights and unlimited food and alcohol. “We wanted more freedom”
Many fans described the shuttles as a fairly seamless process – arriving at Dubai Airport less than an hour before take-off, whizzing through the queues with no luggage and flying around 50 minutes before landing in Doha on time for their game.
But others found it stressful and draining.
“These are long days. It’s exhausting,” said Steven Carroll, a lab technician from Wales, whose flight back to Dubai was delayed an hour and who returned him exhausted to his Dubai hotel at 4am after a 24-hour day.
“The problem is that you have to arrive in Qatar quite a while before the game and allow even more time to pass through the airport.”
Fernando Moya, a 65-year-old Ecuador fan from New York, said he regrets flying in from Abu Dhabi. A technical problem with his friends’ Hayya cards, which serve as entry visas for Qatar, left his companions stranded in the capital of the United Arab Emirates.
Moya spent his Thursday speaking to customer service at Doha Airport and spent almost $2,000 to fly over them on a new flight.
“The logistics of this whole system are very complicated for people,” he said.
On Thursday, the airport swarmed with fans from Saudi Arabia, whose citizens have bought more World Cup tickets than any other nationality, after Qatar and the United States. The Saudi team’s shock victory over Argentina this week added to the excitement.
Riyadh, a burgeoning tourism destination, has sought to capitalize on the regional boom by offering two-month visas to the kingdom to Hayya cardholders. Saudi student Nawaf Mohammed said World Cup fever was palpable in Riyadh as more Westerners were seen at the capital’s airport and carnivals.
The prospect of feeder flights from the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. In 2017, the two Gulf Arab states, along with Bahrain and Egypt, imposed a boycott on energy-rich Qatar and cut trade and travel ties over the emirate’s support for political Islam and ties with Iran. Qatar refused to back down and the embargo ended last year.
Nevertheless, tensions remain. Bahrain, just a 45-minute flight from Doha, remains at odds with Qatar over politics and maritime borders. Fans sleeping in the island kingdom do not enjoy such easy flights.
Eyad Mohammed, who chose to stay on a beach in Bahrain, had a layover in eastern Saudi Arabia on Thursday.
“This region is not always comfortable,” he said.
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