World Cup fans put off by prices, beer limits and air travel

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Traveling to this World Cup was supposed to be easy in the tiny host nation of Qatar, after fans have had to take long flights between cities at the past three tournaments.

Qatar’s eight stadiums are located in or near the capital, so fans don’t have to travel far to get to matches, in theory. The country advertised its World Cup as environmentally sustainable in part because of how compact it is, but the reality is quite different.

Tens of thousands of foreign fans are turning to connecting flights between Doha and neighboring Dubai for various reasons: high hotel prices, a shortage of accommodation and alcohol limits.

It may sound extreme, expensive, and environmentally questionable, but daily flights have become a popular option as fans opt to sleep somewhere other than Qatar.

Dubai, the riotous commercial capital of the United Arab Emirates, is the region’s top destination outside of Doha. State airlines like FlyDubai, the emirate’s budget airline, are mustering resources, operating 10 times the number of regular flights to Doha.

Neighboring Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia have also organized air transport to capitalize on the World Cup tourism boom. Every few minutes, a Boeing or Airbus rumbles over the old Doha airport.

The concept of air ferries is not new to the Gulf, where many who live and work in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia or parched Kuwait hop to Dubai for the weekend to drink freely and party in the glittering metropolis.

Unlike the fans who had to take long-haul flights 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 trips of less than 500 kilometers (311 miles), are more polluting than long ones per person per kilometer flown because of the amount of fuel used to take off and land.

More than a dozen World Cup fans interviewed Thursday who chose to stay in neighboring countries said it came down to cost. Many could not find an affordable place to sleep in Doha, or anywhere else. As hotel prices soared in the months leading up to the tournament, frugal fans scrambled to find places in Qatar’s remote fan villages lined 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 fan zones,” said Ana Santos, a Brazilian fan who arrived at the Doha airport on Thursday with her husband.

“In Dubai, we found a fancy hotel for little money. … The flights are so full that we are not the only ones.”

After eight years of being dormant, Doha’s old airport has come back to life as thousands of passengers from shuttle flights throng its halls. On Thursday, Qataris in traditional dress handed out juicy dates and Arabic coffee to arriving fans, who applauded and took photos as they wrapped their national flags.

Other fans on connecting flights were put off by Qatar’s alcohol restrictions. The city’s few hotels are almost the only places where alcohol is allowed to be served, following a last-minute ban on beer in stadiums. Doha’s only liquor store is open only to Qatari residents with an official permit.

Meanwhile, Dubai’s vibrant nightclubs, pubs, bars and other tourist spots are packed with spirits, and at prices lower 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 liquor stores without a license.

“We want to have an experience in Dubai. 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 fairly straightforward process: arriving at Dubai airport less than an hour before takeoff, going through lines without luggage, and flying for about 50 minutes before landing in Doha just in time for the game.

But others found it stressful and exhausting.

“These are long days. It’s exhausting,” said Steven Carroll, a lab technician from Wales, whose return flight to Dubai was delayed by an hour, returning him to his Dubai hotel exhausted at 4 a.m. after a 24-hour day.

“The problem is that you have to arrive in Qatar well before the game and you have to leave even 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’ Hayya cards, which serve as entry visas to Qatar, left his colleagues stranded in the UAE capital.

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

“The logistics of this whole system are 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 victory over Argentina this week further fueled the excitement.

Riyadh, an aspiring tourist destination, has sought to benefit from the regional push, offering two-month visas to the kingdom to those with Hayya cards. Saudi student Nawaf Mohammed said World Cup fever in Riyadh is palpable, with more Westerners visible at the airport and carnivals in the capital.

The prospect of connecting flights from the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia would have been unthinkable just a few 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 ties over the emirate’s support for political Islam and ties with Iran. Qatar refused to back down and the embargo ended last year.

Still, tensions persist. Bahrain, just a 45-minute flight from Doha, continues to argue over politics and maritime borders with Qatar. Fans sleeping in the island kingdom don’t enjoy such easy flights.

Eyad Mohammed, who chose to stay on a Bahrain beach, made a stopover in eastern Saudi Arabia on Thursday.

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

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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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