AL KHOR, Qatar (AP) — For dozens of overseas football fans, the road to the World Cup in Doha begins every morning at a barren campsite in the middle of the desert.
Visitors who have found central Doha hotels booked or well beyond their budget have settled for the far-flung, dusty tented village of Al Khor, where there are no locks on the tents and no beers on tap.
Others simply wanted an adventure. A DJ blasted electronic dance music around a fire pit on Wednesday as a smattering of fans lounged on beanbags, sipped sodas and watched the big screens about an hour from Doha.
“I’m here because I couldn’t find anywhere else,” said Haidar Haji, a 27-year-old architectural engineer from Kuwait. He said it was a hassle to enter Doha every morning from the tent city, but he had no other choice. “Hotels were just too expensive. It was crazy.”
Even so, the Al Khor fan village doesn’t come cheap. Haji said he’s paying $450 a night for his meager makeshift retreat, which authorities tout as a “perfect destination for a really nice and lavish stay.” The tents are equipped with basic plumbing fixtures and furniture. The site has a swimming pool and a high standard Arabic restaurant.
Since Qatar was named host of the World Cup, fears have grown about how the tiny country would find space for the massive influx of 1.2 million fans, or almost a third of the population.
Qatar’s frenetic building program has provided tens of thousands of rooms through new hotels, rental apartments and even three giant cruise ships. But rising prices have forced many thrifty fans to take refuge in remote desert campsites and giant fan villages on the outskirts of Doha, including one near the airport made up of corrugated cardboard box rooms.
At Al Khor Village, many fans complained of 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 the political situation in Iran. She was staring into space in the common area of the campground and said she had no idea how to occupy her time with her. The posh hotel bars of Doha were miles away. “We thought they would open up more for foreigners to enjoy.”
Paola Bernal of Tabasco, southern Mexico, wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the first World Cup in the Middle East. But she said she was surprised at how long it takes to cross the smallest host country in the world. The buses from the campsite are a “mess,” she said, and stop running at 10 p.m., forcing fans to fork over huge sums for Uber rides.
“There are such long distances, I don’t know how,” he said. While some stadiums are connected to Doha’s shiny new metro network, they often require a 2.5 kilometer walk from the stations. Other pitches can only be reached by bus, with some delivery points just a short walk from the stadium gates – and desirable bars and restaurants even further afield.
The barren grounds of Al Khor are no selfie paradise. But Nathan Thomas, a site designer, said he was delighted with the “authentic Arabic” result. The one big concern, he said, is safety. Not all tents are within sight of a guard post. The tents have no locks. Their flaps untie easily.
“We keep telling people it’s a safe country, don’t worry,” he said.
From the Free Zone Fan Village in the desert south of Doha, fans dragged their suitcases across vast expanses of artificial turf under the glare of stadium lights. Manufactured cabins are among the cheapest accommodations available, starting at around $200 a night. Every few minutes, low-flying planes fly over the village on their way to the old airport, which has reopened to handle the daily tournament shuttle flights. Banners hung on trailers invite fans to “Rejoice.”
A few days before the tournament, social media was filled with images of toilets that had yet to be installed and cables still wrapped in the earth to connect water and electricity.
Lots of complaints or excessively long waits for check-in. A crowd of guests queuing on Wednesday night said they couldn’t get their rooms because reception wasn’t sure who had already checked out. “We wanted good vibes, good energy, to be with other people,” said Mouman Alani from Morocco. “This is very disorganized.”
A camper on Twitter slammed the site as “Fyre Festival 2.0,” referring to a notorious music festival billed as a luxury getaway that left fans scrambling for makeshift shelters on a dark beach.
“When we went to our room, it was all messed up,” Aman Mohammed, a 23-year-old from Kolkata, India, said in the common area on Wednesday. He said he waited two hours in the scorching sun for a cleaning lady to arrive the day before. “She Smelled so bad, like a bad toilet. It was pathetic.
But, he insisted, there was no false advertising. The website shows dozens of colorful metal boxes side by side on a vast dusty lot. And despite his disappointment, she said, the World Cup was ultimately about football.
“(Cristiano) Ronaldo is playing in his last World Cup, I’m just here to see him,” said Mohammed, referring to the superstar competing for Portugal in the tournament. “Participating in this has been a dream for me since I was a child.”
Associated Press reporter Jon Gambrell in Doha contributed to this report.