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Qatar Airways eyes rapid growth as travel demand rebounds

By Rachel More

BERLIN (Reuters) -Qatar Airways announced plans for rapid growth on Tuesday, as the travel industry recovers from the pandemic.

Announcing objectives at the ITB tourism fair in Berlin, the Gulf carrier said it would add seven destinations, restore 11 others and boost the frequency of flights to 35 markets - marking a 21% rise in flights by July 2023, compared with the same month last year.

Chief Executive Akbar Al Baker, speaking in his first appearance since settling a major legal dispute with Airbus, said the airline was being conservative because of its dependence on deliveries from Airbus or Boeing amid supply woes.

"Unfortunately it is not in their hands; I think supply chain problems will last a bit longer," Al Baker told a news conference during the world's largest tourism expo.

Newly planned airline destinations include five in Europe, including three in France, and two in Africa.

"The aviation industry is slowly rebounding ... (from) unprecedented pressures," Al Baker said.

Al Baker noted upward inflationary pressure on ticket prices but said the airline was not passing on all fuel increases.

Al Baker, whose roles include tourism minister of Qatar, also announced a campaign to increase visitors to the Gulf state, building on attention from hosting the 2022 soccer World Cup to boost its domestic tourism industry.

He said Qatar aimed to increase the number of annual visitors threefold compared to 2019 levels to six to seven million, with a target of contributing to 10% of its economy.

Gulf analysts say the small peninsula state faces stiff competition from neighbouring Dubai, an international tourist destination, as well as from Saudi Arabia as the kingdom opens up and invests heavily in tourism and entertainment.

Al Baker said Qatar had been the target of disinformation and vigorously defended its performance in staging the World Cup. He lashed out at media coverage surrounding the event.

PARTNERSHIP BENEFITS

Qatar, the first Middle Eastern country to stage soccer's showpiece event, came under scrutiny from human rights groups over its treatment of migrant workers ahead of the tournament.

National organisers have acknowledged there are gaps in the country's labour system but say the World Cup has allowed the country to make progress on issues related to worker rights.

Tuesday's news conference did not address a lobbying scandal in Europe, but when asked about the airline's code-sharing ties with Indian carrier IndiGo, Al Baker seized the opportunity to accuse European adversaries of their own negative campaigning.

"We see that partnerships and relationships within the industry have so many benefits for each other...instead of constantly pushing back on the competition, pushing back on airlines that are giving travellers options," he said.

"We don't waste our time in the capitals of Europe trying to lobby against other airlines. We mind our own business and we serve our passengers."

European carriers have long criticised Qatar Airways and other Gulf carriers of receiving subsidies, a charge they deny.

In a wider lobbying controversy, Belgian authorities have detained two European Union lawmakers, with a third held in Italy, on charges that they and others linked to the European Parliament received cash and gifts from Qatar in return for influence over decision-making. Qatar has denied any wrongdoing.

(Reporting by Rachel More, Editing by Tim Hepher, Mark Potter and Christina Fincher)