In the battle to be the pre-eminent travel hub in the Middle East, the latest research from ForwardKeys, which has the world’s freshest and most comprehensive flight booking data, reveals that in the first half of 2021, Doha seized and consolidated a lead over Dubai. In the period 1stJanuary to 30th June, the volume of air tickets issued for travel via Doha was 18% higher than it was through Dubai; and that relationship looks set to continue. Current bookings for the second half of the year through Doha are 17% higher than through Dubai.
At the start of the year, air traffic through Doha was at 77% of Dubai; but it quickly reached 100% for the first time during the week commencing 27th January.
The major factor driving the trend was the lifting, in January, of the blockade of flights to and from Qatar, which was imposed in June 2017 by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who accused Qatar of sponsoring terrorism – an accusation strongly denied by Qatar. As soon as it was imposed, the blockade had an immediate negative impact on flights to and from Doha. For example, Qatar Airways was forced to drop 18 destinations from its network. In addition, various flights through Doha suffered extended journey times, as planes had to make detours to avoid the blockading counties’ air space. The destination and its major carrier, Qatar Airways, did not respond to the blockade by cutting back; instead, it opened 24 new routes to utilise what would otherwise have been idle aircraft.
Since January 2021, five routes, Cairo, Dammam, Dubai, Jeddah and Riyadh, to/from Doha have been reopened and traffic on other routes has grown. The reinstated routes which have made the most substantial relative contribution to visitor arrivals are Dammam to Doha, reaching 30% of pre-blockade arrivals in the first half of 2017, and Dubai to Doha, 21%. In addition, new connections with Seattle, San Francisco, and Abidjan, were established in December 2020, January 2021 and June 2021 respectively.
The major existing routes which have shown the strongest growth compared to pre-pandemic levels (H1 2021 vs H1 2019), by total number of passengers arriving in Qatar, are: Sao Paulo, up 137%, Kiev, up by 53%, Dhaka, up 29% and Stockholm, up 6.7%. There have also been notable increases in seat capacity between Doha and Johannesburg, up 25%, Male, up 21%, and Lahore up 19%.
A deeper analysis of seat capacity shows that in the coming quarter, Q3 2021, seat capacity between Doha and its neighbours in the Middle East will be only 5.6% less than pre-pandemic levels and the majority, 51.7%, of it is allocated to reinstated routes to/from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The last major factor, which has given Qatar an edge over Dubai, has been its reaction to the pandemic. During the height of the COVID-19 crisis, many routes in and out of Doha remained operational, with the result that Doha became a major hub for repatriation flights – most notably to Johannesburg and Montreal.
A comparison of market share during the first half of 2021, against the first half of 2019, reveals that Doha has substantially improved its position against Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Currently, hub traffic is divided 33% Doha, 30% Dubai, 9% Abu Dhabi; previously, it was 21% Doha, 44% Dubai, 13% Abu Dhabi.
Olivier Ponti, VP Insights, ForwardKeys commented: “Without the blockade, which encouraged the establishment of new routes as a strategy to replace lost traffic, perhaps we would not have seen Doha charging past Dubai. So, it seems that the seeds of Doha’s relative success were, ironically, sown by the adverse actions of its neighbours. However, one needs to bear in mind that flights through the Middle East during H1 2021 were still 81% below pre-pandemic levels. So, as the recovery gathers pace, the picture could change significantly.”
By Joe Cusmano