Football fan Chris Leek was born in 1958, the last time Wales qualified for the Fifa World Cup. “I always wanted to see Wales at the World Cup – now I can enjoy the rest of my life,” he said of the Principality’s participation in this year’s tournament in Qatar.
Leek plays alto saxophone with The Barry Horns, a marching band made up of 11 Welsh football fans. Seven of them have traveled to the Gulf to play the Wales Games in Qatar not only to try to wow the crowds with their music but also to promote Welsh identity and independence from Britain.
But like thousands of other fans, they have based themselves in nearby Dubai, the regional commercial hub in the United Arab Emirates, and have made the arduous day’s journey to Qatar’s capital, Doha, with hour-long shuttle flights connecting the cities during the tournament.
Fans from participating countries have opted for the lively nightlife of Dubai rather than the down-to-earth atmosphere of Doha. Qatar’s last-minute decision to ban the sale of alcohol in stadiums only underscores the country’s more conservative culture.
The party spirit begins at Dubai’s two airports, which have been so busy this week that some have run out of McDonald’s and Heineken beers.
Across the city, fan zones are teeming with fans from all nations, reflecting the diverse nature of Dubai’s expatriate population, which makes up 90 percent of Dubai’s 3.5 million residents.
In the downtown financial hub, bankers have swapped suits for football shirts to watch games at Fanpark, where companies have rented lounges for $5,500 for 20 people that include food and alcohol.
With 60 daily shuttle flights between Dubai and Doha, up to 350,000 people could be transported during the tournament from the region’s tourism hub, which is expected to host around 1.5 million visitors.
The flood of fans comes in the middle of Dubai’s tourism season, when visitors flock there in search of winter sun. The state airport operator says passenger throughput has dwarfed pre-pandemic numbers, with traffic topping 6 million a month in the third quarter. Dubai’s Emirates airline reported a 228 percent increase in passenger numbers in its first-half results.
“Dubai has extremely high demand at this time of year and I’m sure a lot of people will be traveling through Dubai for the World Cup,” said Issam Kazim, Managing Director of Dubai Tourism. “This tournament will be a boost for the entire region.”
But officials say the number of fans visiting the emirate solely to watch Qatar matches is likely in the low tens of thousands, up by as much as a three percentage point increase in hotel occupancy. Many playing cards have been sold to expatriates in the Gulf, including some of the 100,000+ Brits living in the UAE.
Many hotels are now operating at almost full capacity anyway as travel demand has soared. In September, according to the latest available statistics, the average occupancy rate of the approximately 140,000 available rooms across the emirate was 71 percent, with the average daily rate being about a quarter higher than in 2019.
Dubai-based Expat Sport has attracted about 2,000 fans through its hotel and flight packages for fans who have tickets to attend matches in Qatar. Fans from South America, India and the UK are staying in Dubai’s popular Palm Island district and commuting to and from Qatar on flights booked by the company, which also sells World Cup hospitality packages for expatriates in the United Arab Emirates.
“There’s a general excitement, it’s suddenly there,” said Sue Holt, chief executive of the sports tourism group. “People who haven’t thought about it say, ‘Why don’t we just go.'”
For visitors like The Barry Horns founder Fez Watkins, Dubai also offered the chance to visit “amazing” clubs where the mix of South Asian and Arabic-influenced rhythms was “absolutely mind-blowingly good”.
Local well-wishers have loaned the band sound equipment and drums for the Doha games, as well as their gigs for overseas enthusiasts at hotels and events at the British embassies in Qatar and Dubai.
The group, formed in 2011 when the national team’s fortunes were at rock bottom, plays tunes like the military march “Men of Harlech” and Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” to boost the morale of the “Red Wall” by Welsh fans decked out in national colors and bucket hats.
“There were a few issues but overall it was great – arriving at the airport with the fans from Mexico and Argentina was a joyful World Cup experience,” said Watkins.
“The World Cup was always like a party that we were never invited to. And now we are finally part of it.”