Buying plane tickets in 1998 was a different experience than it is today. The thought of physically sitting with a travel agent in an office and tediously going through options is archaic, and the savings that can be made with a little patience on the web has meant that the bulk of ticket purchases can be done online in the comfort of one’s own home.
A Stopover in Goa?
Back in 1999, however, the travel agent was king (or invariably queen, as most were female). Entering the office and looking at offers to Tenerife, Ibiza and Majorca, I felt a little exotic asking for a flight to Colombo.
“Colombo. That’s Sri Lanka, right?” she asked in a cheerful voice, her nails polished and hair immaculate. “We don’t get many for there, but I had a friend who went. Lovely.”
“Yes. I have never been but it sounds nice.”
“To be honest, I like this exotic stuff. It is so boring doing the same old places. Let’s see what we can find.” The perfectly manicured fingers tapped away and I slipped into a haze, looking forward to being reunited with my hosts in Sri Lanka, my former Californian boss Jeff and his lovely Rwandese wife Rose – we had lived together in post-genocidal Kigali. Tap. Tap. Tap.
“Direct or indirect? I have Heathrow to Colombo for £550 or one with a stopover for £425.”
“Where’s the stopover?”
“Dunno. Somewhere called Doa, I think it’s pronounced.”
“You mean Goa? Can I break my journey on the way out for, say, three days?” This was an unexpected bonus; Jeff and Rose were not going to be there to meet me, so a few days in Goa would be just the trick, a chance to travel somewhere new.
“You can, but it is £75 extra to break the journey on the way out, so that will be £500. It is not Goa, but Doa.”
Goa, Doa, whatever – I am sure it would be fun, so I told her to go ahead and book.
In Search of Doa
Parting with my non-refundable £500, she informed me that the system told her I had to get a visa for Doa, wherever that was. Not a problem, I replied, and headed to the travel section in the nearest bookshop ten minutes later, one Qatar Airways ticket to the good (who the hell were Qatar Airways?), determined to learn more about my unexpected bonus – three days in Doa.
My hunt for my prize took me a while, but I eventually tracked it down in Lonely Planet’s Middle East on a Shoestring, March 2007. ‘Doa’ was ‘Doha’, the capital of Qatar, wherever that was. The intrepid gene within came to the fore. I delved into the guide to learn more.
I have the book in front of me now.
Around the Gulf, Doha has earned the unenviable reputation of being the dullest place on earth.
Lonely Planet or Travel Agency Advice
Terrific. The Middle East, while boasting some amazing sights and places to visit, did have its fair share of dull, alcohol-free places, and it looked like I had chosen the driest and dullest of the lot. For three days. The disappointment soon passed – it would be a new experience and a chance to observe life and learn more about a country I wasn’t even sure how to pronounce. I moved on to the visa information section.
Nationals of GCC countries and British passport holders with right of abode in the UK do not need a visa to enter Qatar.
Good old Lonely Planet, always so reassuring – at least the visa issue would not be a problem. Who would you rely on more for information – a travel agent who didn’t know which country I was spending three days in or the world’s leading backpacking travel guide?
The flight was late on New Year’s Eve and I would be seeing the New Year in at 35,000 feet en route to the Middle East. My Dad dropped me at Heathrow in the snow and I looked forward to the imminent warmer climes. There were few people checking in and I was soon presenting my passport and non-refundable £500 ticket.
The Thorny Visa Issue
“Where is your visa, Sir?” asked the check-in lady after diligently checking my passport.
“I don’t need one, I am British.”
“I am afraid you do, Sir. British citizens require a visa. No visa, no flight.”
I smiled. Not wanting to tell her how to do her job or be too smug, I pulled out the Lonely Planet bible and was searching for the relevant page, when she cut me short.
“I know about the Lonely Planet guide saying there is no visa requirement. Unfortunately, the information is not current. It was written last year and the new rules came into effect earlier this year. I am sorry, but no visa, no fee.”
New Year in the Snow
It was early evening New Year’s Eve at Heathrow Airport, with snow outside and my Dad uncontactable fighting his way home up the M1 motorway. In my hand a worthless piece of paper, which had been worth a seat on a plane to Sri Lanka moments before.
“There must be something I can do. Is there an emergency visa procedure or something?”
“You can only get visas from the Qatari Embassy in London, but they will be closed until after the holiday.”
“So that’s it? I have lost £500 and am stuck at Heathrow with no way home.”
“Your travel agent should have informed you about the visa requirement.” Ah, those polished nails; while she may not have known where Doha was, her system was current, unlike the guidebook.
“But there must be someone I can speak to. Please! I have been saving up for two years and really want to see Qatar.”
“I don’t think there is, but I will call my supervisor. Take a seat and I will call you when I have finished with the check-in.”
Signing a Life Away in Arabic
I sat disconsolate for perhaps 20 minutes before my name was called. Quite apart from the wasted cash, I had been really looking forward to seeing my friends again and exploring Sri Lanka. The alternative, trying to find my way home in the snow on New Year’s Eve, I didn’t want to contemplate.
The supervisor reaffirmed the official position and I went into pathetic mode, pleading with him. Surely there must be something he could do, as this was hardly my fault – the agent had not told me I lied. He went away and came back a few minutes later with a piece of paper.
“There is a way we can take you, but you have to sign this disclaimer, that you knowingly took the flight without a visa and you take full responsibilities for any consequences, absolving the airline from any responsibilities.”
A ray of hope! I looked at the text to make sure I wasn’t signing my life away. Even if I was, it was better than being stuck here at Heathrow in the snow, surely? I looked at the text again, staring in disbelief.
“It is in Arabic.”
“Yes, that is all we have. It is just a standard form, releasing the airline from responsibility, as we can be fined.”
“But it is in Arabic. I have no idea what I am signing.”
“You do not have to sign, Sir, but this is the only way you can board the plane.”
Ah, what is the worst that could happen? I could be selling my kidneys and donating my brain to science, but it should be ok. Shouldn’t it? The thought of going out into the snow removed any lingering caution. I signed.
Locked Out of Qatar
The plane was full and I fell into conversation with a few. They expressed surprise that I was spending time in Qatar, as everyone else it seemed were heading on to Colombo and Bangkok. Qatar Airways was a new airline and it was cheap. A couple from Devon were also going to Sri Lanka for the first time, and were looking forward to a brief glimpse of Qatar in the 15 hours they had to wait in between flights, with the airline providing a room in a posh hotel so they could relax.
While the flight was very comfortable, the arrivals hall was worse than shabby, with little space or seating before immigration and a toilet worth avoiding (one can only imagine the contrast today with Qatar’s impressive expansion). I agreed to meet the Devon couple at their hotel later. While the plane was full, those entering the country were a small minority. There were seven of us, and I was the last to approach.
“Where is your visa?” asked the uniformed immigration officer?
I proffered my Arabic document, confident that I would be on the bus with my new friends in a few minutes.
“I asked you where is your visa. This paper is not a visa.”
“But it explains why I don’t have one, and I was told I could come to your country if I signed it.”
“You can come but you cannot enter. You must return to London on the next flight.” His job done, he turned and headed into his office.
Happy New Year to you too. Not a great way to start the year, locked out of Qatar. My first taste of the Middle East wasn’t making me come back for more.
Assessing the Options
I assessed the options. Clearly I was not going to get into the dullest place on earth. I could return to London or perhaps I could get on an earlier flight to Colombo. Spending three days locked out of Qatar was even less appealing than London in the snow. The official could see me from his office and I approached him again and asked if I could change my status to transit and head out to Sri Lanka that evening. He dismissed me, telling me to go back to London.
I sat, keeping my presence in his view and saw him joined by a colleague who began asking questions and looking in my direction. Emboldened, I approached them again to find the colleague more sympathetic. Or perhaps my presence was spoiling his view. He said he would contact the airline to see what could be done. Initial hope was soon dashed as he said they were full.
I sat there for an hour with no idea what to do when an airline official came over to inform me that they did in fact have space, and I would be treated as a transit passenger. No chance of the £75 refund, but the complimentary hotel room and imminent freedom was worth far, far more.
Having checked in to the hotel, showered and strolled around the bay, I had to conclude that the Lonely Planet’s description of Doha was if anything understated. Times change, and I can imagine it is now an impressive city. I never did find out what I signed and I doubt such an option is available these days, but if my trip to Doha taught me anything, it was always to check the stopovers and visa requirements first, something that was reinforced at Sana’a Airport in Yemen three years later, as I met a Somali refugee who had been living in the transit lounge for three weeks, after trying to board a flight to Frankfurt with no visa.