The Doha experience

Gary Peters travels to Qatar to experience some of the top highlights on offer and discovers how the country is eager to boost its cruise industry.

As a country, Qatar cannot be accused of playing it safe or lacking ambition. As I write this, it is only weeks away from hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The eyes of the world will be on Qatar for a month when it welcomes fans from across the globe, with all the pomp and ceremony that comes with what is considered the biggest and most important sporting tournament on the planet.

While non-football fans will claim it is only a footballing occasion, there is undeniable glamour and prestige that comes with the World Cup. Speaking somewhat biasedly as a football fanatic, it can – when there is a coherent legacy plan in place – drastically transform a country’s image and place it even higher upon the world stage.

A myriad of nationalities will descend, many of whom will experience the country and in particular the capital Doha, for the very first time.

I happen to be one of these first timers, with a week-long trip taking place in the middle of September to better understand how Qatar intends to grow its cruise industry and force its way into the minds of cruise line executive and passengers.

I admit to being a little anxious before setting off, as it can sometimes be hard to shake off pre conceived ideas no matter how much reading material or individual accounts you consume.

Souk Waqif is Doha's historic bazaar. Credit: Qatar Tourism

Past, present and future
I need not worry, however. Due to a late flight into Doha, it’s not until the following morning that I begin to soak in the Qatari experience, and from the off it puts a smile on my face.

A packed itinerary starts with a full tour of the National Museum of Qatar, an immersive space telling the story of the country’s past, present and future.

Opened in 2019, it is stylish, with its mind-bending architecture and desert rose design offering its own unique selling point. Inside, it does what all good museums do – narrating, through displays and interactive points, the ins and outs of Qatari life throughout the ages.

For me, where the National Museum of Qatar stands out is with its flow, literally pulling visitors into the stories it is telling.

I experience some of this, in person, during a tour of Msheireb, downtown Doha. Classed as the old town area, it has been completely renovated, and now features a free tram network for easy transportation.

It is also classed as one of the world's first sustainable downtown regeneration projects, using, according to the experts, sustainable technology, and green building standards.

Something else that is new in Doha is the metro system. Opened in 2019, this network is connected to all the World Cup stadia and has drastically improved transport in the city, even though walking is still a viable option.

Just a stroll from my hotel is the Souk Waqif, somewhere I am most eager to see, and something that surely proves equally popular with cruise passengers.

This historic, bustling marketplace has dozens of alleyways and stalls dotted around, with all manner of good available to buy. There are traditional Qatari delicacies and authentic knickknacks that no gift shop could compete with. Amazing aromas fill the air as I take a very intentionally slow walk through the nooks and crannies, stopping in various shops where the welcome is warm, relaxed and personal.

Find your ideal cruise

Search for the best cruises to the Middle East

Sports city
Everywhere I look in Doha, there is construction work ongoing. These new projects, mixed in with what is already standing fully complete, demonstrate in clear detail the huge amount of work and investment that has been pumped into the city in recent years.

One such new development is the 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum, located at the Khalifa International Stadium, which itself is the heart of the Doha Sports City complex.

Here, there are numerous displays of the history of many sports, including football and many Olympic events. Olympic medals and torches from summer and winter games can be seen, and even for those not hugely interested in sports, it is a fascinating deep-dive experience.

I also travel to the Katara Cultural Village, opened in 2010, and which is available as a shore excursion for cruise guests. This is home to galleries, concert halls and a spectacular amphitheatre. Qatar Tourism describes it as place which acts as a “guardian to the heritage and traditions” of Qatar.

My final afternoon in Doha involves an exhilarating desert safari, riding the sand dunes in fits of laughter but thankfully no motion sickness. As daylight turns to dusk, I settle down to eat, overlooking the sea, with a fresh breeze finally taking the edge off the heat and humidity, before a night-time journey back through the desert, with nothing but the stars for illumination.

Qatar's desert is truly special. Credit: Qatar Tourism

Cruise targets
As demonstrated, Doha is not short on things to do. The question will be, can Qatar meet its ambitious aim of trebling visitor numbers to six million by 2030? Cruise has an important role to play in hitting this target. The new Grand Cruise Terminal – large enough for two mega ships – opens very soon and will host the naming ceremony of MSC Cruises’ new flagship MSC World Europa on 13 November.

When that news was announced in early September, Qatar Tourism and Qatar Airways Group chief executive Akbar Al Baker added: “Qatar has taken important steps to position itself as a world class destination for cruise passengers and the naming ceremony of MSC World Europa in Doha is another landmark event as we grow this important tourism sector.”

It’s not just MSC, however. Emerald Azzurra, the first super yacht from Emerald Cruises, will cruise from Doha, starting in January 2023, operating seven-night itineraries. Pre and post cruise tours will also be available, including a three-day package to explore the sites and culture of Qatar.

The full 2023/24 cruise season will run from November through to April, with approximately 120 cruise calls expected, with the likes of Ponant and Silversea also having Doha on its itinerary lists. There is also a belief that as its cruise story grows and reaches more people, other cruise lines will look to follow suit.

So, as the countdown to the World Cup continues, the future is set to be anything but dull for Qatar.

Most recent articles

About Gary Peters

Gary is an experienced cruise journalist and editor who has been at the helm of Cruise Trade News since 2019. In that time, the brand has focused on investigative journalism and long-form feature content. Gary has also overseen the launch of new digital publications. Prior to joining Cruise Trade News – initially as deputy editor in 2018 – Gary worked in music and sport journalism, and as a senior editor for B2B magazines in the transport and environment sectors.