Cover Story Bahrain flags off magic formula March 2004 486 As Bahrain is crowned the Speed King of the Middle East with its first-ever F1 race, Frankie Fernandez reports on the mega tourism and sports event Share Shaikh Fawaz with Ecclestone at Monza ... Arabian hospitality takes the world stage As many as 100,000 tourists from all over the world are expected to descend into Bahrain next month as the country holds the Middle East’s first-ever Grand Prix race and sees its tourism industry soar to new, unprecedented highs. The Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix will be held over three days – from April 2 to 4 – at a purpose-built racing circuit in Sakhir.The project, which involves an investment of BD56.2 million ($148 million), is expected to give a major fillip to the country’s economy, says the developer, the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC), a 100-percent government-owned organisation. BIC chairman Shaikh Fawaz bin Mohammed Al Khalifa says it will bring in major economic benefits with hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, taxis doing booming business over the race and possibly up to 3,000 people gaining part-time work.“The circuit has not just been built for F1 events and will be used as much as possible,” he explains. “International possibilities include motorcycle grand prix and we project an annual business plan for 200 days of use within three years.”The F1 event is the third in the Fédération Internationale de L’Automobile (FIA) racing season.The Formula One World Championship begins its 18-race programme in Melbourne, Australia on March 7 and the second follows two weeks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.Bahrain, which comes next, will feature a galaxy of racing stars including World Champion Michael Schumacher with 19 other drivers, and the venerable F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone.Hotels have reportedly been fully booked for the historic event, ticket sales have been brisk and some of the special packages – such as the Bahrain Experience – have already been fully sold out.However, tickets for the event are still available and regional airline Gulf Air, which is the major sponsor and official carrier of the event, will be laying on extra flights at the time of the event.The airline’s president and chief executive, James Hogan, says the event offers unparalleled tourism exposure for Bahrain and the rest of the Gulf. “For Gulf Air, and for other businesses in the travel and tourism industry such as hotels and car hire companies, it provides an opportunity, like no other, to showcase the traditional Arabian hospitality and warmth for which the island is famous for,” he says. He continues: “An event of this scope and size is good for Bahrain. In addition to creating thousands of employment opportunities, it is driving rapid infrastructural development that will also benefit the region in the longer term.”The hotels are also upbeat. Renzo Cavagliotti, general manager of the Regency InterContinental Bahrain, is excited by the opportunities the Bahrain Grand Prix is offering the Kingdom. “The hotel is already fully commissioned for the race period, and that is obviously good for business,” he says. “Lots of our guests have never previously visited Bahrain and this means that they will experience for the first time the true meaning of the truly rich local hospitality.“All the Kingdom’s leading hotels have service and general facilities in keeping with the very best in the world, and on leaving many of the international visitors who have travelled here for the first time will turn into the finest ambassadors for what Bahrain has to offer. While initially they will be coming to Bahrain to watch and focus on the Grand Prix, they will also get a taste of just how pleasant this country is... While only one driver and one team will be on the winner’s podium at the end of the race, lots of businesses in Bahrain – including all the hotels – will be long-term winners of the momentous 04.04.04. event.”F1 also means great news for the travel trade. “This is the first year that it is being held in Bahrain and, of course, it will enhance the country’s profile internationally,” says Al Fanar Travel general manager Zulfikar Ali. “However, I see ourselves really beginning to cash in from next year on.”The Grand Prix also means business is booming for restaurants in Bahrain with some closing in the build up to the event so that they can handle block reservations for global corporate clients.Krumz in Adliya, a popular bistro, has already taken some corporate bookings, but manager Bradley Bigg stresses that the restaurant will also be open for regular clients.“We are fortunate in having both upstairs and downstairs sections and this means that I can accept limited corporate bookings (for say 20 - 30 guests) and at the same time reserve part of the restaurant for everyday customers.“This way, I do not have to disappoint regular clients, who support the restaurant 12 months a year, but I can also benefit from hosting all-important corporate clients during the race build up.” Bigg sees the next month “as an extremely exciting time for the restaurant and for Bahrain in general.”The main contractor on the project, Cebarco, was euphoric on the eve of the handover – set for March 5. “While we have always been confident that we would achieve our target, it is nevertheless very satisfying to be able to handover the project ahead of schedule,” says chairman and CEO of Cebarco Khalid Rahim. “Our thanks go out to all the people involved – the ministries, the government agencies and the BIC and the subcontractors – who have made this possible. We believe the F1 will provide a tremendous tourism boost and wish the BIC every luck with it!”Telecommunications provider Batelco has geared up its infrastructure and boosted its networks at a cost of $1 million to ensure that the telephones and mobiles keep ringing on D Day. Projections are that 80 per cent of the crowds will be from the Gulf states, and most of them will come armed with mobiles, says Ahmed Al Al Sawafiri, a senior manager at Batelco. But as with any major project, along with the bouquets come the brickbats. Bahrain International Travel (BIT) operations manager Ali Dawani says his company lost out on 2,500 customers due to unavailability of hotel rooms. “Our neighbours in Dubai and Qatar have benefited more,” he comments. However, Bahrain-based publisher R Middleton says overall, it’s a major victory for Bahrain: “We scooped one of the world’s top sporting events. It’s fabulous.”In the Kingdom, the event has reached fever pitch: at a street carnival last month, titled F1 Fever, a Sauber Petronas C22 car gave 20,000 bystanders a taste of what F1 racing was all about, reaching speeds of up to 300 kph on a stretch of Bahrain’s highway, while vintage cars and Harley Davidsons paraded and Middle East rally champion Mohammed bin Sulayem burned all his tyres on his Ford doing amazing pirouettes.Typically, the event was filled with the fun and chaos that goes with street racing, but more importantly the teeming crowds proved that BIC has got its formula right: Speed’s King for Bahrain’s tourism and with this conquest will come rich spoils.