More than one out of every four visitors to Qatar now hail from Saudi Arabia, according to new government figures that have shown a spike in tourism during the first quarter of this year.
The neighboring country’s importance to Qatar’s tourism sector appears to be growing, despite efforts by authorities here to attract a more diverse group of visitors.
In the first three months of this year, the number of arrivals from Saudi Arabia climbed to 241,008 people, a 28 percent jump over the first quarter of 2014, the Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA) said.
The visits were highest last month, when many families from Saudi Arabia came here while schools were closed for holiday.
“March witnessed the largest monthly influx of arrivals in Qatar’s history,” Hassan Al Ibrahim, QTA’s chief tourism development officer, said in a statement.
The number of Saudi tourists was more than double the number of visitors from India, Qatar’s second-largest source of guests. Arrivals from the South Asian country inched up to 107,262 in the first quarter, a 5 percent increase over the same period a year earlier.
Overall, the number of visitors to Qatar between January and March this year climbed to 841,025 people, up 11 percent over the first quarter of 2014.
Visitors also came from the UK (39,270 arrivals, up 4 percent), Bahrain (33,648, up 1 percent) and Oman (30,685, up 5 percent), among other countries.
Industry courts KSA
Saudi Arabia – and, to a lesser extent, other GCC countries – have long been a dominant source of tourists to Qatar, due to their proximity, common language and culture.
Previously, local tourism officials have said they want the number of visitors from the region to keep increasing, but would like to see the number of tourists from outside of the Gulf grow even faster.
Generally speaking, tourists from afar tend to spend more on hotels, dining out and shopping when they travel. By attracting more high-spending visitors, Qatar officials see tourism as a way for Qatar to diversify its economy away from oil and gas.
To that end, QTA has set a goal of attracting 64 percent of its tourists from outside the GCC. During the first quarter of 2014, it came close to meeting that target, as 57 percent of visitors came from non-Gulf countries.
Still, there are signs that the industry is looking to cater to and capitalize on Qatar’s largest source of tourists.
For example, Hilton Hotels & Resorts last year announced plans to open a 362-room waterfront resort in southwest Qatar, 15 minutes from the Saudi border, by 2019.
And last month, QTA officials stepped in to prevent hotels from hiking their prices during the Saudi school holiday.
The local tourism body threatened legal action against some hotels that had apparently increased their prices by 400 to 1,200 percent of the maximum allowable rate, denouncing the higher rates as “irresponsible.”
Despite the incident, the cost of a hotel room increased only modestly in March. The average rate per room stood at QR566 last month, up from QR546 in February. The increase was relatively consistent across all categories of accommodations, from five-star facilities to budget hotels.
Overall, average room rates actually dipped 1 percent during the first quarter. But higher occupancy rates meant that hoteliers brought in 7 percent more revenue per available room, a key industry metric.