By SREE BHAT
There is cheer on the face of ‘Island of Smiles’ Bahrain as it encounters the global tourism market after registering impressive growth figures last year. Having hosted more than five million tourists from around the world, who spent $2.5 billion on the island, Bahrain is looking at the future with confidence.
The Kingdom’s tourism industry currently represents nine to 10 per cent of its GNP and the government is now working with the Economic Development Board (EDB) to increase it to 20 per cent in the coming years. This is an ambitious target, though not an impossible one considering that Bahrain has come a long way in a short time in this sector and many interesting developments are taking place in the country at the moment.
Bahrain’s march to become a major holiday destination received a boost when the Kingdom’s Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa recently stressed the urgent need to create leisure and cultural venues alongside recreational opportunities for families. Specialised festivals and quality art shows would also attract visitors and promote Bahrain as a key holiday destination, said Sheikh Khalifa. He pledged solid government backing for any projects and initiatives to boost tourism.
Today, the majority of the tourists – 82 per cent – come from neighbouring Gulf countries. This leaves a tremendous opportunity tap the large markets of the West and East.
Bahrain will be targeting these markets at the ITB Berlin, which will be taking place from 11 to 15 March 2005 on the Berlin Exhibition Grounds and in the ICC Berlin, with a renewed focus on the attractions in the Kingdom.
Last year, Bahrain catapulted itself on the world sports tourism map by organizing the first Formula One Grand Prix in the Middle East. Tourism planners are placing their bets on the F1 to be the vehicle for growth in the future.
“We are going to focus on the F1 advantage at the ITB. The race is being held on April 1 to 3 and Bahrain’s tourism sector seeks to benefit from this great sporting extravaganza,” said Hassan Al Shehabi, senior marketing specialist at Tourism Affairs. Bahrain will have an 80 sq m stand which will portray modernity as well as Bahrain’s age-old heritage. “We will also highlight other key developments such as the Bahrain Financial Harbour, Durrat Al Bahrain, Al Areen resort, etc. at the exhibition,” he added.
The four-member Tourism Affairs delegation will be joined by about 12 tourism related companies from the Kingdom at the stand. “Our aim will be to increase awareness on Bahrain and what it offers for a tourist at the ITB. We have a destination which offers a vast variety of choices for the tourist,” Al Shehabi said.
The delegation will also exchange views and explore cooperation with global travel trade at the expo. The greater awareness about Bahrain and the many tourism facilities coming up in the country including the resorts, parks and hotels are expected to raise the number of visitors to nine million by 2010.
Mubarak Al Atwi, assistant undersecretary of Tourism Affairs, said that Bahrain's advantage is its size and the diversity it offers. “We are different, an island with 5,000 years of history and a vibrant present,” he explained. “We have 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. Bahrain currently has 90 hotels, spanning all categories, with a total of 6,788 hotel rooms. The tourism industry now accounts for around 17 per cent of the total workforce in the country.
Meanwhile, business leaders have sought allocation of land for investment on beaches. They have also demanded more shopping events and summer festivals.
Bahrain International Airport also set records in all areas of its activities last year with an increase of 20 per cent in passenger numbers and 27 per cent in cargo business.
The airport, which handled 5.2 million passengers last year, hopes the figure would reach six million in 2005. Bahrain also recently announced plans to set up a holding company, with a paid-up capital of BD250 million ($663 million) to run the government’s tourism investments.
Forty per cent of the company, with an authorised capital of up to BD500 million, will be owned by the government while the remaining 60 per cent will be issued as public shares to eventually be traded on the Bahrain Stock Exchange.
TTN is the most established trade publication in the Middle East distributed on a controlled circulation basis to members of the travel and tourism industry.
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