World Cup fans defer prices, and beer limits commuting by air

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Traveling this World Cup should have been easy in tiny host nation Qatar, after fans have had to make long journeys between cities in the last three tournaments.

Qatar’s eight stadiums are located in or near the capital, so fans won’t have to go far to get to matches – in theory. The country has described the World Cup as environmentally sustainable in part because of how small it is, but the reality is very different.

Tens of thousands of foreign fans flock to the shuttle flights between Doha and neighboring Dubai for a number of reasons – high hotel prices, scarcity of accommodation, and alcohol limits.

It may seem extreme, expensive, and environmentally questionable, but day trips are becoming a popular option as day trippers choose to sleep somewhere other than Qatar.

Dubai, the free trade capital of the United Arab Emirates, is the region’s top destination outside of Doha. Government airlines such as flydubai, the emirate’s low-cost carrier, are pooling resources and operating 10 times the usual number of flights to Doha.

Neighbors Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia also organized air shuttle flights to take advantage of the World Cup tourism boom. Every few minutes, a Boeing or Airbus flies over the old Doha airport.

The concept of air shuttles is not new to the Gulf region, with many who live and work in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia or parched Kuwait hop over to Dubai for the weekend to sip freely and have fun in the glittering capital.

Unlike fans who had to make long journeys 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 flown due to the amount of fuel used for takeoff and landing.

More than a dozen World Cup fans interviewed Thursday who chose to stay in neighboring countries said the cost had come. Not many people have found an affordable place to sleep in Doha, or anywhere at all. With hotel rates soaring in the months leading up to the tournament, thrifty fans scurried to spots in remote fan villages in Qatar filled with canvas tents or shipping containers.

We wanted to stay for five days in Doha. But it was very expensive. “We didn’t want those weird fan areas,” said Ana Santos, a Brazilian fan who arrived at Doha airport on Thursday with her husband.

“In Dubai, we found a luxury hotel for very little money. … The flights are very crowded, so we’re not the only ones.”

After eight years of inactivity, the former Doha airport has come back to life as thousands of shuttle passengers stream through its halls. On Thursday, Qataris in traditional dress distributed rich dates and Arabic coffee to the oncoming fans, who cheered and took pictures while wearing their national flags.

Other fans were barred from the shuttles due to Qatar’s alcohol restrictions. The city’s few hotels are almost the only places allowed to serve alcohol, after a last-minute ban on beer in stadiums. Doha’s only liquor store is only open to Qatari residents with an official permit.

Meanwhile, Dubai’s nightclubs, pubs, bars and other attractions are buzzing with spirits – and at lower prices than in Doha, where a single beer sells for $14 at the official fanfest. Even in Abu Dhabi, the UAE’s most conservative capital, tourists can buy alcohol in liquor stores without a license.

“We want to have the Dubai experience. This is more interesting to us,” said Bernard Boateng Duah, a doctor from western Ghana who bought an all-inclusive hotel package in Dubai that provides him with flights for match day, as well as unlimited food and alcohol. We wanted more freedom.”

Many fans have described the buses as a fairly seamless process – arriving at Dubai Airport less than an hour before take off, pressing the lines with no baggage and flying 50 minutes before landing in Doha just in time for their game.

But others found it cumbersome and stressful.

“These are long days,” said Stephen Carroll, a laboratory technician from Wales, whose return flight to Dubai was delayed by an hour, and wearyly brought him back to his Dubai hotel at 4am after a 24-hour day.

“The problem is that you have to get to Qatar long before the game and you have to allow more time to go through the airport.”

Fernando Moya, a 65-year-old Ecuadorian fan from New York, said he regretted flying from Abu Dhabi. A technical problem with his friends’ life cards, which serve as entry visas to Qatar, has left his comrades stranded in the Emirati capital.

Moya spent Thursday talking to customer service at Doha airport and spent nearly $2,000 to get them on a new flight.

“The logistics of this whole system are very complex for people,” he said.

The airport was packed Thursday with fans from Saudi Arabia, whose citizens have bought more World Cup tickets than any other nationality after Qatar and the United States. Saudi Arabia’s surprise victory over Argentina this week added to the excitement.

Riyadh, the ambitious tourist destination, has sought to capitalize on the regional boost, offering life card holders two-month entry visas to the kingdom. Saudi student Nawaf Mohammed said the World Cup fever in Riyadh is palpable, with more Westerners showing up at the capital’s airport and carnivals.

The possibility of shuttle flights from the UAE or Saudi Arabia was unthinkable a few years ago. In 2017, the two Gulf states, along with Bahrain and Egypt, imposed a boycott on energy-rich Qatar, severing trade and travel links over the emirate’s support for political Islam and its ties with Iran. Qatar refused to back down and the embargo ended last year.

However, the tensions remain. Bahrain, which is only 45 minutes by plane from Doha, continues to squabble over politics and maritime borders with Qatar. Fans sleeping in the island kingdom don’t have such easy flights.

Iyad Mohammed, who chose to stay on a beach in Bahrain, stopped in eastern Saudi Arabia on Thursday.

“This area is not always convenient,” he said.


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