With new cultural attractions opening up and the 2022 World Cup on the way, Qatar is on a mission to grow tourism.
In a desert city reaching for the stars, with its fast-growing collection of skyscrapers, Doha’s new $434 million National Museum of Qatar is out of this world, in every sense.
Its dramatic exterior resembles a jumble of interlocking flying saucers but was actually inspired by the Arabian desert, and designed by award-winning French architect Jean Nouvel, the man also behind the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
However, it’s the interior of this space-age building where things really take off. Opened in March, the museum throws away the rulebook and wows visitors with a journey through the history, people, culture, flora and fauna of Qatar, told via a range of interactive exhibits and immersive video displays.
Everything is askew inside – ceilings soar at angles, walls tilt and jut, and even some floors are inclined.
Among the eye-catching exhibits is the 19th-century Pearl Carpet of Baroda, commissioned by an Indian maharajah and embroidered with 1.5 million Gulf pearls as well as diamonds, rubies and emeralds.
The museum is the embodiment of long-time business destination Qatar’s ambition to grow tourism, with culture one of six focus areas in its five-year tourism development plan.
Other areas include beach and coast tourism, and cruise tourism, with 16 cruise ships using Doha as a turnaround base for the 2019/20 season.
A desert peninsula the size of Yorkshire jutting into the Arabian Gulf, Qatar was once reliant on its pearl diving industry.
That died after the Japanese introduced cultured pearls, but then oil was discovered under its sands, with exports beginning in 1949.
Today, offshore natural gas production provides most of Qatar’s wealth, rendering it the richest country in the world based on GDP per capita.
Everywhere in Doha there is construction on huge new projects. Chief among them are the eight football stadiums being built to host the 2022 Fifa World Cup.
Sport is another of Qatar’s six tourism focus areas, and the nation is keen to welcome golfers. The opening of Doha’s Education City Golf Club complex in early 2019 gives Qatar two championship courses.
The prestigious Qatar Masters tournament, part of the European Tour’s Desert Swing, will move there from Doha Golf Club when it is held in March.
Among other major projects, the new Doha Metro opened its first phase this year, connecting Hamad International airport with the city centre. More lines will open in the run-up to the Fifa World Cup in 2022.
Doha has its fair share of plush hotels, with more than 50 five-star properties out of a total of 128. Plans are also afoot to build 75 new hotels covering all star grades to welcome future tourist arrivals.
I stay at the swanky Ritz-Carlton Doha, built on its own island with a club lounge and a 235-berth marina, adjacent to the Lagoona luxury shopping mall.
Close by is Katara Cultural Village, a modern interpretation of Qatar’s architectural heritage that includes an amphitheatre, opera house, music academy, traditional dovecotes and a gold mosque.
Msheireb Downtown Doha, a $5.5 billion project reviving the oldest part of the capital as a social and civic hub, includes four historic heritage houses that are now museums and the recently opened Mandarin Oriental hotel.
The area is a short walk from Souq Waqif, a bustling warren of covered and outdoor alleyways housing small shops crammed with everything from spices, perfumes and Arabian coffee pots to gold.
There’s also an outdoor camel market and a falcon souq full of shops where hunting birds cost from a few thousand dollars to eye-watering sums – in fact, so prized are they that the souq has the world’s largest falcon hospital.
I take a break from shopping to dine at Parisa Souq Waqif, an exotically decorated Persian restaurant located in the souq.
But Qatar is more than just Doha, and I go on two desert dune-bashing trips an hour’s drive away, thundering up, down and occasionally sideways on steep, golden sand dunes in powerful Toyota 4x4s.
One trip takes in lunch at a tented beachside resort where clients can swim in the warm Gulf waters.
On the other, driver-guide Amir takes us 80km (50 miles) south to the shore of the Khor Al Adaid Inland Sea, where we watch the sunset.
Qatar is looking to international markets to boost its growing tourism ambitions.
The “Qatar – Qurated for you” campaign launched last year by the Qatar National Tourism Council (QNTC) underlines the country’s focus on tailored, visitor-centric experiences celebrating heritage.
“The UK and Ireland is a key source market for us and, with a total of 90,863 visitors in 2019 up to the end of September, Qatar saw a 20% growth on arrivals from the previous year,” says Rashed Al Qurese, QNTC chief marketing and promotion officer.
He adds that national carrier Qatar Airways increased frequency on five of its UK and Ireland routes to Doha – from Cardiff, Manchester, Gatwick, Edinburgh and Dublin – by 17 flights a week during the summer in response to increased demand, and offers 119 direct flights from seven UK and Ireland regional airports every week.
It seems for Qatar, the sky’s the limit.
Flight time: Less than seven hours direct from London.
Time difference: +3GMT.
Best time to go: November to March. Qatar has a desert climate with year-round sunshine, little rain and hot summers. Winter evenings can be cool.
Getting around: Suggest clients use taxis or Uber in Doha.