Qatar Airlines have made huge investments in the last decade or so, expanding their routes an upgrading their fleets. It’s a move that has paid off for them, being named last year as the Skytrax number one airline in the world.
One of their newer initiatives is the free city tour for passengers with longer layovers. This is a move that has become a little more popular with airlines of late, with airlines such as Korean Airlines, Royal Brunei, Singapore Airlines and China Airlines using the venture as way to give passengers ‘a little taste’ of the country they are transiting through, even if they could not take the time to spend a few days stop over.
Above: Kotara Cultural Centre
I had a choice between Qatar Airlines and Emirates, each with 6-8 hours layover, and very similar in price to each other. Having heard about the free city tour that Qatar offered, I decided to try it out, rather than spend more time shopping in Dubai airport – so the marketing certainly worked on me!
To join the tour, you find the tour desk, sign up for one if there are places left, show your boarding pass, fill out a form, and then come back at the designated time. Qatar Airlines have negotiated a special transit visa expressly for these tours, so the usual (if paltry) visa cost is even waived. A representative then escorts you through to immigration, where you are then introduced to your tour guide and taken straight to a waiting bus.
Doha is a city under construction. It has been neatly planned, and is well laid-out, with most of the buildings being less than 20 years old. Because of that, there are some impressive architectural and engineering sights along the drive out to the city. I felt like it was Dubai on a more small-scale, and perhaps with a little more relaxed vibe. There were eerily few people on the streets, though that was no doubt in part due to the scorching temperatures of a Middle Eastern summer, with iftar not yet declared for the evening.
One of the first stops on the tour is beside the ocean, with a great view of the up and coming city skyline. I found the contrast between the local boats, all tethered up right beside our stop in some chaotic manner, and the skyscrapers opposite more interesting than the skyline itself. As were the few land rovers and jeeps with families who came to appreciate the same view – it seems only 4x4s will suffice for an afternoon outing, and not one person left the air conditioned vehicles to step outside and enjoy the view.
Above: Amphitheatre in the Kotara Cultural Centre
Our next stop was the empty and unfinished Cultural Centre. The Kotara Cultural Centre would perhaps be a better stop outside of Ramadan, or at least when there are events being held there. There was a quite impressive amphitheater, in a modern imitation-Greek style, which would no doubt be incredible to hear music played in. The complex is full of “reconstructed traditional” buildings, that are nonetheless some of the only hints of Qatari architecture prior to the days of riches and oil that are left in the city. It would be a lovely place to enjoy a iced drink and stroll around the shoreline, but Ramadan left the place empty other than ourselves.
Above: Doha souk
The souk was the only place where there were any people, and it was mostly tourists appreciating their limited stopovers regardless of the religious festival. However, just as we left the area, the locals were starting to come out, anticipating the Iftar call and the food that would come with it. The area is based around a plaza, full of pigeons, which then opens out into the souk streets behind it. There are little alleys with side streets of unexpected finds, and street vendors with food right next to bigger restaurants. The smell of food cooking started at about 5.30pm, when the thirty minute countdown to Iftar was obviously starting, making everyone’s mouths water. I rounded one corner to find about ten shops selling birds, the mini-piazza they made a riot of noise. Although certainly not as authentic as the souks I visited in Oman, I would have liked to have spent more time wandering around, with a bit more freedom and time to check out some of the shops. There was everything from birds, gold, musical instruments, khan jar knives and traditional clothing, to the typical souvenir kick knacks.
From there, we were driven back to the airport, back past the funky lampposts which were now lit up in different colours, and taken to immigration. I got back through immigration in very little time, made my way to the departure gate, and was soon boarding my next flight. Although the tour is definitely a one-time thing, getting out into the city was far better way to while away the hours, than to flit between the airport’s coffee shops!
Qatar Airways offers all passengers with transits of more than 6 hours the chance to take a free city tour. It operates on a first in first served basis. Please check the Hamad International Airport for more information. I travelled with Qatar between Tehran and Yerevan.