A look inside the remote desert camps housing World Cup fans on a budget

For many foreign football fans, the road to the World Cup in Doha starts every morning at a barren camp in the desert.

Tourists who find hotels in central Doha are booked out or well over budget have settled for the dusty tent village of remote Al Khor, where the tents come with no locks and no draft beer.

Others just want to take a risk. A DJ played electronic dance music around a fire pit on Wednesday, and a small group of fans lay on couches, sipping sparkling water and gazing at a big screen about an hour’s drive from Doha.

“I came here because I couldn’t find anywhere else,” said Haidar Haji, a 27-year-old construction engineer from Kuwait. He said the trek from the tent village to Doha every morning was painful, but he had no choice. “The hotel is too expensive. It’s crazy.”

Even so, Al Khor Van Village is not cheap. Haji said he pays US$450 ($668) a night for his humble makeshift accommodation, which authorities advertise as “the perfect destination for a truly enjoyable and luxurious stay”. Tents come with pipes and basic furniture. The site has a swimming pool and upscale Arabic restaurant.

From the moment Qatar was named host of the World Cup, there were concerns about how the small country would find a home for the influx of 1.2 million football fans, almost a third of the population.

Qatar’s frantic construction program has provided tens of thousands of rooms in new hotels, rental apartments and even three giant cruise ships. But soaring prices have forced many frugal fans into remote desert campsites and giant fan villages outside Doha, including a village of corrugated box houses near the airport.

In Al Khor village, many fans complained about the isolation and lack of alcohol.

“Honestly, you can find more alcohol in Tehran,” said Parisa, a 42-year-old Iranian oil worker, who declined to give her last name, citing Iran’s political situation. Gazing out at the space in the camp’s common area, she said she didn’t know what to do with the time. Doha’s trendy hotel bars are miles away. “We think they’ll be more open and let foreigners have fun.”

Paola Bernal, from Tabasco in southern Mexico, is unsure what to expect from the first Middle East World Cup. But she said she was surprised by how long it took to traverse the world’s smallest host country. She said the buses from the camp were a “mess” and stopped running at 10pm, forcing fans to shell out big bucks for Uber rides.

“It’s such a distance, I don’t know how to get there,” she said. While some stadiums are linked to Doha’s gleaming new metro network, it’s often a 2.5km walk from the station to get there. Other venues are only accessible by bus, with some drop-off points a long way from the stadium gates – and desirable bars and restaurants even further.

The dry land of Al Khor is no selfie-seeker’s paradise. But website designer Nathan Thomas said he was very pleased with the “authentic Arabic” result. The only major concern, he said, was safety. Not every tent is within sight of the guard post. The tent does not have a lock. Their flaps are easily undone.

“We’ve been telling people this is a safe country, don’t worry,” he said.

At the Free Zone Fan Village in the desert south of Doha, fans dragged their suitcases across expanses of artificial turf under stadium lights. Manufactured cabins are some of the cheapest accommodations, starting at around $200 per night. Every few minutes, low-flying planes whiz over the village on their way to the old airfield, which has been reopened to handle the daily shuttle flights to the tournament. A banner attached to the trailer urged fans to “cheer up”.

Just days before the race, social media was awash with images of yet-to-be-installed toilets and wires still coiled in the dirt to connect water and electricity.

Many people complained about the long wait at check-in. A large group of guests waiting in line Wednesday night said they couldn’t get their rooms because the front desk wasn’t sure who had checked out. “We want a good vibe and energy in being with other people,” said Mouman Alani from Morocco. “It’s very chaotic.”

A camper on Twitter lambasted the site as “Fyre Festival 2.0”, referring to a notorious music festival that billed itself as a luxury getaway that left fans scrambling for temporary shelter on dark beaches.

“When we got back to our room, everything was messed up,” Aman Mohammed, a 23-year-old man from Kolkata, India, said in a common area on Wednesday. He said he had waited two hours in the scorching sun the day before Just wait for the cleaners. “It stinks like a bad bathroom. It’s pathetic.”

But, he insisted, there was no false advertising. The site displays dozens of colorful metal boxes side by side across a dusty expanse. Despite his disappointment, he said the World Cup was ultimately about football.

“(Cristiano) Ronaldo is playing in his last World Cup and I’m here just to see him,” Mohamed said, referring to the superstar’s squad for Portugal in the tournament. “It’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid to take part in this.”

Associated Press

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