DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Travel to this World Cup it was supposed to be easy in the small host country of Qatar, after fans had to take long flights between cities in the last three tournaments.
The eight stadiums in Qatar are located in or near the capital, so fans don’t have to go far to get to the games — in theory. The country has billed its World Cup as environmentally sustainable, partly because of how compact it is, but the reality is quite different.
Tens of thousands of foreign fans are turning to bus flights between Doha and neighboring Dubai for a variety of reasons – high hotel prices, lack of accommodation and alcohol limits.
It may sound extreme, expensive and environmentally questionable, but daily flights have become a popular option as fans choose to sleep somewhere other than Qatar.
Dubai, the commercial capital of the United Arab Emirates, is the region’s top destination outside of Doha. State-owned airlines such as FlyDubai, the emirate’s budget carrier, are raising funds by flying 10 times the usual number of flights to Doha.
Neighboring Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia have also organized airbuses to cash in on the World Cup tourism boom. Every few minutes, a Boeing or an Airbus buzzes over the old Doha airport.
The concept of airbuses is not new to the Gulf, where many who live and work in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia or arid Kuwait head to Dubai for the weekend to drink freely and party in the glittering metropolis.
Unlike fans who had to take long-haul flights to World Cups in South Africa (2010), Brazil (2014) and Russia (2018), the Dubai-Doha route is shorter in most cases.
However, short-haul flights, often defined as trips of less than 500 kilometers (311 miles), are more polluting than long-haul flights per person per kilometer traveled because of 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 it came at a cost. Many could not find an affordable place to sleep in Doha or anywhere. As hotel prices soared in the months leading up to the tournament, frugal fans looked for places in Qatar’s far-flung fan villages 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 these weird fan zones,” said Ana Santos, a Brazilian fan who 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, so we’re not the only ones.”
After eight years of inactivity, the former Doha airport is coming back to life as thousands of flight passengers crowd its halls. On Thursday, Qataris in traditional dress handed out juicy dates and Arabic coffee to the arriving fans who cheered and took photos while draped in their national flags.
Other fans on bus flights were turned away due to Qatar’s restrictions on alcohol. The city’s few hotels are almost the only places allowed to serve alcohol, after a last-minute ban on beer at stadiums. Doha’s only liquor store is only open to Qatar residents with an official license.
Meanwhile, Dubai’s bustling nightclubs, pubs, bars and other tourist hotspots are awash with spirits — and at lower prices than in Doha, where a single beer costs $14 at the official fan festival. Even in Abu Dhabi, the most conservative capital of the United Arab Emirates, tourists can buy alcohol in unlicensed liquor stores.
“We want to live an experience in Dubai. This is more interesting for us,” said Bernard Boatengh Duah, a doctor from western Ghana who bought an all-inclusive hotel package in Dubai that offers him flights on the day of the match, as well as unlimited food and alcohol. “We wanted more freedom.”
Many fans described the shuttles as a pretty seamless process — arriving at Dubai airport less than an hour before takeoff, zipping through with no luggage, and flying for about 50 minutes before landing in Doha just in time for their match.
But others found it stressful and draining.
“These are long days. It’s exhausting,” said Stephen Carroll, a laboratory technician from Wales, whose flight back to Dubai was delayed by an hour, returning him to his Dubai hotel worn out at 4am after a 24-hour day.
“The problem is that you have to get to Qatar well before the game and you have to allow even more time to get 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’ Hayya cards, which act as entry visas to Qatar, stranded his companions in the UAE capital.
Moya spent his Thursday talking to customer service at Doha airport and paid almost $2,000 to put them on a new flight.
“The logistics of this whole system is very complicated for people,” he said.
The airport on Thursday was packed with fans from Saudi Arabia, whose citizens have bought more World Cup tickets than any other nationality after Qatar and the United States. Team Saudi Arabia’s shock win over Argentina this week has fueled even more excitement.
Riyadh, an aspiring tourist destination, has sought to capitalize on the regional push by offering Hayya cardholders a two-month visa to the kingdom. Saudi student Nawaf Mohammed said World Cup fever in Riyadh was palpable, with more Westerners visible at the capital’s airport and carnivals.
The prospect of coach flights from the UAE or Saudi Arabia would have been unthinkable years ago. In 2017, the two Gulf Arab states, along with Bahrain and Egypt, imposed a boycott on energy-rich Qatar, cutting trade and travel links over the emirate’s support for political Islam and ties to Iran. Qatar refused to back down and the embargo ended last year.
Even so, tensions remain. Bahrain, just a 45-minute flight from Doha, continues to spar over politics and maritime borders with Qatar. The island kingdom’s sleeper fans don’t enjoy such easy flights.
Eyad Mohammed, who chose to stay on a beach in Bahrain, had a stopover in eastern Saudi Arabia on Thursday.
“This area is not always convenient,” he said.
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