Passengers arrive at Dubai Airport terminal 3, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on October 25, 2022. Just as soccer fans might take to a game in a European metro city, thousands of foreigners will attend The World Cup in Qatar. this month commuting to games by plane. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili, File)
DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Travel at this World Cup was supposed to be easy in the small host nation of Qatar, after fans had to take long flights between cities at the last three tournaments.
All eight stadiums in Qatar are in or near the capital, so fans don’t have to travel far to get to games – in theory. The World Cup country has touted itself as environmentally sustainable in part because of its closeness, but the reality is very different.
Thousands of foreign fans are turning to shuttle flights between Doha and neighboring Dubai for a number of reasons – high hotel prices, shortage of accommodation and alcohol restrictions.
It may sound extreme, expensive and environmentally dubious, but daily flights are popular as fans choose to sleep somewhere other than Qatar.
Dubai, the commercial capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is the top destination in the region outside of Doha. State airlines such as FlyDubai, the emirate’s budget carrier, are directing resources, operating 10 times the number of regular flights to Doha.
Neighboring Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia organized air shuttles to cash in on the World Cup tourism boom. Every few minutes, a Boeing or Airbus flies over Doha’s old airport.
The air shuttle concept is not new to the Gulf, where many who live and work in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia or arid Kuwait head over to Dubai for the weekend to drink freely and have fun in the smart city.
Unlike fans who had to take long flights at the World Cup in South Africa (2010), Brazil (2014) and Russia (2018), the Dubai-Doha route is shorter in most cases.
But short-haul flights, often defined as journeys shorter than 500 kilometers (311 miles), are more polluting than long-haul flights per person for every kilometer traveled because of the amount of fuel used for take-off and landing .
More than a dozen World Cup fans interviewed Thursday who chose to stay in neighboring countries said it came down to cost. Many of them could not find an affordable place to sleep in Doha, or anywhere at all. As hotel prices soared in the months leading up to the tournament, frugal fans jockeyed for spots in Qatar’s far-flung fan villages filled with canvas tents or shipping containers.
“We wanted to stay five days in Doha. But it was too expensive. We didn’t want those weird zones for fans,” said Ana Santos, a fan from Brazil as she arrived at Doha airport on Thursday with her husband.
“In Dubai, we found a fancy hotel for not too much money. … The flights are so crowded we are not the only flights.”
After eight years of lying dormant, Doha’s former airport has come back to life with thousands of shuttle flight passengers pushing through its halls. On Thursday, Qataris in traditional dress threw out juicy dates and Arabic coffee to arriving fans who cheered and took photos as they waved their national flag.
Other fans were barred from shuttle flights due to Qatar’s alcohol restrictions. The city’s hotels are almost the only places allowed to serve alcohol, following a last-minute ban on beer in stadiums. Doha’s individual liquor store is only open to Qatari residents with official permission.
Meanwhile Dubai’s pulsing nightclubs, pubs, bars and other tourist hotspots are teeming with spirits – and at lower prices than in Doha, where one beer goes for $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 the Dubai experience. That’s more interesting for us,” said Bernard Boatengh Duah, a doctor from western Ghana who bought an all-inclusive hotel package in Dubai that gives him match-day flights, as well as unlimited food and alcohol. “We wanted more freedom.”
Many fans described the shuttles as a relatively seamless process – arriving at Dubai airport less than an hour before take-off, zipping through baggage-free lines and flying for around 50 minutes before landing in Doha just in time for the game.
But others found it stressful and draining.
“These are long days. It’s exhausting,” said Steven Carroll, a laboratory technician from Wales, whose flight back to Dubai was delayed by an hour, as he was taken back to his hotel in Dubai which had run out at 4am. after a 24 hour day.
“The problem is that you have to arrive in Qatar well before the game and you have to allow more time to get through the airport.”
Fernando Moya, a 65-year-old Ecuador fan from New York, said he regretted flying in from Abu Dhabi. A technical problem with his friends’ Hayya cards, which act as Qatari entry visas, left his companions stranded in the UAE capital.
Moya spent Thursday talking to customer service at the Doha airport and dropped nearly $2,000 to put them on a new flight.
“The logistics of this whole system is very complicated for people,” he said.
The airport was packed on Thursday 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 win over Argentina this week made me even more excited.
Riyadh, a tourist destination looking to capitalize on the regional boom, has tried to offer two-month visas to the kingdom to those with Hayya cards. Saudi student Nawaf Mohammed said World Cup fever is evident in Riyadh, with more Westerners appearing in the capital’s airport and carnival.
Shuttle flights from the UAE or Saudi Arabia would have been unthinkable years ago. In 2017, the two Arab Gulf states, along with Bahrain and Egypt, imposed a boycott on energy-rich Qatar, cutting off trade and travel links due to the emirate’s support for political Islam and ties to Iran. Qatar refused to back down and the embargo ended last year.
However, there is always tension. Bahrain, which is only a 45-minute flight from Doha, continues to struggle over politics and maritime borders with Qatar. Fans sleeping in the island kingdom do not enjoy such easy flights.
Eyad Mohammed, who had chosen to stay on a beach in Bahrain, had ended up in eastern Saudi Arabia on Thursday.
“This region is not always convenient,” he said