- - Monday, February 9, 2015

Doha’s status as an up-and-coming tourist destination depends entirely on whom you ask. In a city teeming with ex-pats, everyone seems to have an opinion on whether the capital of Qatar could eventually become the next Dubai, or whether the strict religious local Qatari citizens will prevent that from ever happening.

Despite the differing opinions about whether or not Doha will ever be able to entice the crowds away from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), my Kenyan taxi driver, Syrian tour guide, Sri Lankan hotel concierge and British real estate developer lunch date did all agree that while the city’s growth has been impressive these past few years, the offerings for tourists still aren’t enough of a draw.

The Syrian told me that Doha now is Dubai 10 years ago. While I don’t think it’s that progressive, I was impressed with how much fun was to be had. In researching the city, the culture and activities before I arrived, I found a number of differing pieces of information providing insight into how to dress, how to act and what to expect.

Qatar is home to a number of different nationalities, with Qataris representing a small minority. While it is appropriate to dress conservatively as a woman traveling through the Middle East (cover your shoulders and knees, nothing tight or revealing), I did see many foreigners pushing the boundaries on what is proper. From talking to many people, it seems that within the upscale hotel boundaries – especially those with nightclubs – the dress code is much more relaxed. That shocked me, considering I read about a social media campaign this past summer that urged tourists and foreign residents to respect the strict dress code.

While I did illicit a few stares while walking some streets in town (dressed conservatively), I never once felt uncomfortable or unsafe.

Doha does seem to be a city on the brink of something big. Preparing to host the 2022 World Cup, I saw construction project after construction project while moving around town. Overwhelmed with the number of traffic jams I encountered every day, I was pleased to hear officials are in the process of building an underground subway system, which should alleviate some of that mess, especially before the crowds hit in 2022.

The city is incredibly clean, well-manicured and just … different. The skyline almost doesn’t seem real, looking a bit like a stage set for a film taking place many years in the future. While the architecture looks a bit strange, it is quite beautiful at night, with changing colored lights dotting each building.

The number of activities for tourists hasn’t yet reached Dubai proportions. However, there are still adventures to be had. This small country can be traversed in a matter of hours, heading out into the desert for the requisite camel ride or even to beach resorts overlooking the Saudi Arabian mountains. For the adventurous, you can rent a dune buggy to take you over the desert sands or, my favorites, dune bashing, sand sledding and sand boarding.

I was thrilled and surprised at how fun dune bashing actually was. Being a passenger in an SUV that drove over sand dunes didn’t sound all that exciting. The reality was so much more – the sweaty palm clenching thrill of sliding down a giant dune with the expectation that you could topple at any moment.

Then, strapping yourself to a tiny board and propelling yourself down a sand dune felt as exciting as when looking down a snowy hill as a child, anticipating the speed, wind in your hair, and the fear of how you would stop. Prepare for sand to cover every inch of you as you crash, then head up the dune again and again for another thrill.

In town there are museums, a beautiful walk or jog along the Corniche bordering the Arabian Sea, a sail in a traditional dhow (wooden boat) and the not-to-be-missed Souq Waqif, a beautiful market built in the traditional architectural style selling clothes, spices and crafts. It is also the home to a number of restaurants serving food from all over the world.

As Doha prepares itself for the spotlight of the World Cup, it will be interesting to see its progression through these years. Will it ever become the next Dubai, top tourist destination in the Middle East? Could it? It’s possible. But for now, it is already a beautiful place to visit.

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