ON the fourth day of the fourth month of the fourth year of the new millennium, Bahrain became an international celebrity of sorts as the first Formula 1 race to be held in the Arab world went down a storm at a plush $150 million stadium that the country had built in record time on the sandy deserts of Sakhir.
This single event catapulted Bahrain into the big league of tourist destinations as millions of sports fans across the world watched Michael Schumacher win the first Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix.
“It was the break we desperately needed,” says Mubarak Saad Al Atwi, the assistant undersecretary at Bahrain’s Tourism Affairs. “We’ve struggled for the past 20 years on how best to reach the international tourist and the F1 gave us the opportunity to do just that.”
Formula 1 has also given Bahrain a fresh focus on ways to market itself and its other attractions, he says.
Last year Bahrain attracted nearly five million tourists and Tourism Affairs hopes to raise this number to seven million by 2010. “We can easily achieve this, which translates into 10-percent growth annually,” says Atwi. “In addition to mega events such as the F1, we are wooing families with shopping, heritage and cultural festivals, to ensure year-round tourist traffic. Bahrain’s advantage is its size and diversity. We are different – an island with 5,000 years of history and a vibrant present.”
He continues: “Bahrain has many historical attractions, good museums, a cosmopolitan culture and state-of-the-art facilities. These provide us with an enormous marketing advantage. Heritage sites such as the Bahrain Fort and Barbar Temple are being promoted as ‘must-see’ attractions, while new parks and gardens are being built over various locations on the island. One such project involves a major development of its old Adhari Park. New resorts such as the Durrat Al Bahrain, Amwaj Islands and the Al Areen Desert and Spa Resort will also help the initiative, and Tourism Affairs is looking seriously at developing more public beaches on the island.”
Atwi admits that the MICE sector needs restructuring and that Bahrain has not had great success with shopping festivals this far. “We should have three festivals – one in the summer, one over the Christmas season and one in March or April,” he comments. “We are keen to do this, but these events need bigger budgets. It would be great if the private sector took the initiative to promote such events.” Bahrain is also participating in an initiative to project the Gulf as one destination. “The GCC has many projects on hand and one of the first to be implemented will be a tourist package called the GCC Week, under which a tourist will start from Kuwait and proceed to other states,” he says.
Does he feel overwhelmed by Dubai and its growth? “Not at all. Our markets are complementary. We have different themes and products. Our style is also different,” he says.
Come the third day of the fourth month of the fifth year of the new millennium – when Bahrain hosts its second F1 race and the racers and visitors pour in by the thousands – that style and charm will be on show for the world to see.