Great race, great growth
WHEN Bahrain’s statisticians get down to counting numbers at the end of this year, expect whoops of joy from its tourism industry, as statistics are expected to reveal that the Kingdom attracted a record five million visitors, for the very first time, in 2004.
All thanks to a sporting coup which saw the country host the Middle East’s first-ever Formula 1 Grand Prix race this year, and so pull in tens of thousands of visitors over three hectic days in April.
Emboldened by the success, Bahrain’s officials are now targeting ambitious double-digit growth rates over the next six years, while equally emboldened investors are putting their money where their mouth is in anticipation of sunny days ahead. Tourism has, over the years been relatively good for the Island of Golden Smiles, despite regional wars and global economic downturns.
In 1995, the tourism industry revenues were worth $870 million. By 1999, its visitors numbered three million, and at the turn of the century, the industry was pulling in $1.2 billion towards the GDP. Last year, 4.8 million tourists flocked in – a slight increase of one per cent over 2003.
But now, with the next F1 race rapidly approaching the bend, the adrenalin is high and expectations even higher.
The Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) has launched the sale of tickets for the second Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix, which takes place from April 1 to 3, 2005. The marketing call is fresh and new – Arabian Drive, Global Race – aimed at wooing local, regional and international race fans.
And the promise is more entertainment, more value for money and no more standing: the closure of all standing areas at the Sakhir circuit means all spectators will be seated. But the F1 is not the only race that will pull in the crowds: this month will see the circuit go live with a FIA GT Championship race (November 25 and 26), while next month (December 9 and 10) it will host the first F3 SuperPrix in the Middle East.
Things are moving once more on one of Bahrain’s biggest tourism projects, the Durrat Al Bahrain, following the appointment of a new consultant, HAJ Consultancy, to steer the development of the $1.2 billion city resort. The resort will be spread over 20 sq m of desert and reclaimed sea, and be one-third larger than downtown Manama. It will consist of 13 different islands, with more than 2,000 villas and more than 2,000 apartments, luxury hotels, restaurants, promenades, shopping centres, marina, spas, sport facilities, and an 18-hole golf course.
Dredging and reclamation work is currently being undertaken by Great Lakes Nass for completion in 26 months. Work on the other mega city resort called the Amwaj Islands is well in progress. Being built at a cost of $1 billion, the group of islands is being reclaimed off the north coast of Muharraq Island. The development covers some 30 million sq ft, and combines residential neighbourhoods, commercial districts and leisure resorts.
Work on another major tourist attraction called the Al-Areen Desert Spa and Resort is set to commence before the end of the year. Being built at a cost of $600 million, the resort will be the first of its kind in the Gulf and help promote the Kingdom as a tourist hub, says its promoter, Gulf Finance House (GFH). It will have a spa called the Oasis Spa, a water park (Aqua Park), themed hotels, residential communities and a commercial district. It will be located to the south of Manama over an area of 160,000 sq m.
Meanwhile, two iconic twins rising up in Manama are expected to give a fillip to tourism: the 50-storey glass and steel twin skyscrapers, to be branded and operated as the Bahrain World Trade Centre. Another mega development, the 1.3 billion Bahrain Financial Harbour, is moving ahead on schedule.
Work on a $24 million project to turn an old favourite in Bahrain – the Adhari Park – into a theme park is expected to begin in December. The Municipality is evaluating bids from nine investors.The new park would have a rollercoaster, a monorail and a water park and could be further upgraded with costs reaching BD9 million
Lulu Island, being promoted by the Lulu Tourism Company and the government of Bahrain, is expected to cost BD250 million. It will cover an area of 552,000 sq m, near the Bahrain Financial Harbour.
If it snows in Dubai, can Bahrain be far behind? Enter the Bahrain Iceberg, a $500 million attraction planned over an area of 250,000 sq m at Al Jazira Beach and scheduled for completion by 2008. The ambitious development will offer a skiing area in the desert with a ski slope for downhill skiing, ski jump and snowboard slope, indoor ice sports, a dome for ice-hockey, figure skating and ice shows, and ice sculpture park, natural history park, themed luxury hotels, a convention hall and themed shopping mall.
The Bahrain government, meanwhile, plans to privatise its equestrian and horse racing facilities at Sakhir at a cost of $500 million. The development, to be undertaken by Wiggins with the World Bank as the consultant, covers a very large tract of land extending over 3.7 million sq m.
To be completed by 2009, it will involve enhancing the existing racetrack to incorporate night racing, refurbishing the existing golf course, building a grandstand with extensive climate-controlled zones, food and beverages outlets, multiplex cinema, celebration and banqueting rooms, indoor sports and fitness centre, a museum, a state-of-the-art veterinary, a hotel and shopping mall.
Airport and airlines
Things have been getting busier at Bahrain International Airport (BIA), with 2.5 million passengers using the airport the first six months 2004 – an increase of 23 per cent over last year – and July 1 saw an all-time high of 19,058 passengers pass through in a single day.
More airlines are winging their way in: three carriers – Air Arabia, Oman Air and Etihad Airways – have started regular services this year and while Philippine Airlines (PAL) and Cebu Pacific are said to be mulling over flights to Bahrain, in a bid to capitalise on 180,000 unused seat entitlements under a Bahrain-Philippines air pact.
Another noteworthy development this year has been the launch of an electronic visa service (www.evisa.gov.bh) to visitors from certain countries. Bahrain is the first Middle East country to have implemented such a system, joining Australia and New Zealand as users of Sita Information Networking Computing’s intelligent borders services.
The service is currently limited to visitors from countries eligible for obtaining visit visas on arrival in Bahrain but it is hoped that it will be gradually expanded so that most visitors to Bahrain will be able to apply for visit and other visa categories online.
Hotels and properties
Bahrain’s hotel industry continues to grow with some impressive developments under way. In February this year, the Swiss chain Mövenpick opened a stylish boutique property opposite the Bahrain International Airport. The 106-room business hotel, built a cost of BD7.5 million, was quick to enjoy the pickings of the first Grand Prix, with over half its rooms occupied by the Petronas racing team over the course of the event! In Gudaibiya, a new property called the Taj Palace has opened. Work is well under way on the construction of a 15-storey tower which will be called the Diplomat Radisson SAS Residence & Suites. Located next to the existing Diplomat Radisson SAS property, the five-star tower is being built at a cost of $16.5 million.
The Marriott chain is to build executive apartments called the Bahrain Executive Apartments. Located in Juffair, it will be built over an area of 4,000 sq m and is scheduled for completion by June 2006.
A $53 million five-star hotel is to be built at Zallaq Beach by a group of Bahrain investors. To be managed by an international hotel chain, it is scheduled to open in 2006. The five-star Gulf Hotel has also embarked on a plan to build a block of five-star serviced apartments at a cost of $10.6 million. The 15-storey building, located within its premises, will comprise a total of 101 apartments and is scheduled for completion in 18 months.
A massive new commercial mall incorporating two luxury hotels is to be built in Bahrain at a cost of BD150 million ($397.8 million), it was revealed. The project will be the biggest of its kind in Bahrain, cover 140,000 sq m and include a water games city, cinemas, a hypermarket and a mega park capable of accommodating 6,000 cars. Of the two hotels, one will be five-star and the other four-star.
Given all these major tourism developments, Bahrain’s planners have every reason to be confident that the country’s tourism industry is on the right track and that a goal of seven million tourists by 2010 is feasible and achievable.