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Connect to the Doha hub
Connect to the Doha hub

Qatar officially enters the WA travel vocabulary on July 3. For on that day, Qatar Airways starts flying between Perth and Doha, the capital of this Middle Eastern country, adding another airline and another hub to our world and connecting us with its 115, and fast-increasing, end destinations.

Qatar is a 160km long thumb jutting into the Persian Gulf and the world's richest country, per capita, according to the Forbes index, benefiting from big natural gas and oil fields, which contribute half the national income. Twenty per cent of the 1.8 million people on this peninsula are Qatari.

It is also the setting for the November sessions of the United Nations Climate Change Conference, which expects a Doha amendment to the Kyoto Protocol; the venue for the FIFA soccer World Cup 2022 and the base of Al Jazeera television station.

But it is also the home of one of the world's fastest-expanding airlines, with 250 planes worth $50 billion on order.

It is one of its new Boeing 777s which will touch down to fanfare in Perth on July 3 and which will fly between the two cities - initially three times a week, leaving Perth at 11pm on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, arriving in Doha at 5.20am, and leaving Doha at 1.10am and arriving in Perth at 5.10pm. The service will go daily in December.

But we like to be first, and so I am in Doha as the sun rises in a pastel dawn sky. Date palms stand in silhouette and a lone swimmer slowly strokes up an inlet filled with the deeply salty gulf waters, a tower-block skyline hazy behind.

I watch him from the gardens of the Grand Hyatt Doha. There's no other movement in the morning - no breath of wind - just the swimmer passing through silvered water and the perceptibly fast rise of the sun, and in each there is the sense of heading into a bright future.

It is within one person's lifetime that this was a pearling fishing village but modern Doha is growing fast and under ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani has a set vision and destiny.

Qatar Airways is intrinsic to that.

At its head office in Doha, Updesh Kapur, head of corporate communications, says the airline, which started in 1997 with four planes but has received 32 new ones in the past two years, has 14,000 staff still focused on quality and service. The human connection.

I experienced this on the flight from Melbourne, to which I travel first to join and try the existing Qatar Airways flight, as a precursor to the Perth service.

The 777 is new and clean, the seats comfortable and the catering good - a beautiful Arabian mezze plate, a selection of wines and beers. The cabin staff are attentive and friendly.

The average age of Qatar's planes is four years - after this, its leasing company places them with other airlines. Last year it took delivery of a new plane on average every 18 days, this year it will be every 15, next year every 12.

The 777's seats are comfortable in economy and almost flat in business class, where travellers are given nice pyjamas for sleeping. Meals are served when travellers ask for them.

There are 1000 entertainment options throughout the plane on its Oryx system.

Qatar Airways takes delivery, as launch customer, of its first Boeing 787 for the Farnborough International Airshow, a big event in the UK next month. It has 60 on order.

Mr Kapur says it has two seats less per row than its competitors - in the economy class cabin, three sets of three seats across the cabin, rather than four in the middle section.

In the Qatar 777-200LRs, there are also three seats rather than the four sometimes installed in the centre column of seats.

It is stepping up its service between Doha and London Heathrow from four to five flights, two of which will have direct connections with flights from Perth. Flights to Paris are increasing from 17 to 18 a week. There are now two flights a day to Milan.

And 14 new destinations, including Perth, will be added this year, like Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, also in July, and Mombasa, Kenya, in August.

Qatar Airways recently added Zagreb in Croatia to its list - its 30th European destination - and will soon go to Belgrade, Serbia, and Helsinki, Finland.

"We are entering new markets and strengthening our presence in established markets to provide a greater footprint," says Qatar Airways chief executive officer Akbar Al Baker, who was born in Doha.

"In particular, we are focusing on markets that are in need of extra capacity."

And this is one of the foundations of Qatar Airways' business, says Mr Kapur.

"We don't like to fly aircraft with fresh air. We need passengers." So the business model is to look for what Qatar Airways considers to be under- serviced markets where airlines are already operating.

But while main destinations are obviously similar, its destination footprint differs from that of Emirates, which this year celebrates a decade of flying to Perth. There are areas where they may be competitive, others where they will be complementary.

But the bigger issue is the continuing development of the Middle East air hub - its geographical position perfect for connecting the world in one hop, Etihad Airways is still said to be connecting Perth to Abu Dhabi this year. The $15.5 billion New Doha International Airport, which opens on December 12, is designed for fast and comfortable transit. (I had a private viewing, as you can read in a future edition.)

But a particular feature of the existing airport is its Premium Terminal, for business and first class flyers, which recently and for the second year running was named Skytrax's best premium service airport.

This separate terminal for business and first class has fine dining and spa facilities - and is so comfortable that it's a feasible thought that holiday travellers might rest here and catch a later plane, to pause a journey rather than actually stopping over. It has dedicated e-gates for immigration and check-in desks.

Qatar Airways also has a Premium Lounge at London's Heathrow but apart from these two Premium Lounges at Doha and London, Qatar Airways shares all other lounges - making individual decisions depending on the quality and availability of lounges in specific airports. It has not been finalised which lounge will be used in Perth for business and first class passengers.

Flyers are eligible for QMiles, Qatar's frequent flyer program.

But let's consider getting off in Doha, as Qatar Airways bases some of its most competitive airfares on travellers having a 48-hour stopover here.

Hotels like Grand Hyatt Doha are world class. It has a private beach, swimming pools, landscaped gardens and excellent service. Its restaurants are excellent and there is a delightful local Arabian cuisine - flatbreads, dips, lamb and chicken kebabs, naughty Middle Eastern sweets. In addition to resort life and dining, souk trawling, city and dhow tours, the Museum of Islamic Art and a visit to the Inland Sea will fit nicely into a 48-hour stopover.

The call to prayer has rung out through the morning from minarets, the swimmer is long gone and the sun is now high. A new day has dawned.

·Stephen Scourfield was a guest of Qatar Airways.

  • fact file *

·Flights can be booked, with 48-hour stopover packages, at travel agents, qatarairways.com/au or on 1300 340 600.

·The Grand Hyatt Doha can be booked by adding as a stopover when booking a Qatar Airways flight. Or book at doha.grand.hyatt.com/hyatt or by calling +974 4448 1234 (Doha is five hours behind Perth). Prices naturally vary depending on room type, date and length of stay but there is currently an offer for a stay of a minimum of three nights for about $160 per room per night.