Bahrain’s tourism is on the way up, with the country’s tourist arrivals passing the five million mark last year.
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. And last year, as many as five million tourists flocked in, according to statistics.
But now, with the next F1 race rapidly approaching the bend, the adrenaline is high and expectations even higher.
The Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) is all set to host 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’s pulling in crowds: late last year the circuit came alive again with the FIA GT Championship race in November 25 and 26, and the first F3 SuperPrix in the Middle East, held in December.
Things are moving at a frenetic pace on one of Bahrain’s biggest tourism projects, the Durrat Al Bahrain. HAJ Consultancy is steering the development of the $1.2 billion city resort being built by the Durrat Khaleej Al Bahrain Company.
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.
Properties worth BD170 million ($451 million) have already been sold at the Durrat Al Bahrain resort following the launch of sales of villas: 390 in the offered in first phase and 460 luxury in the second phase.
Because of the heavy demand from other GCC states, the company is planning to open offices there, starting with Riyadh.
Durrat Al Bahrain is equally owned by the Bahrain government and Kuwait Finance House (KFH), Bahrain, which bought the 50 per cent stake earlier held by the Saudi firm Dallah Al Baraka. It is being developed with the help of engineering design and consultancy firm W S Atkins.
Work on another mega city resort called the Amwaj Islands is well in progress. The project consists of a group of man-made islands less than 2 km off the coast of Muharraq which, once complete, promises to offer a combination of world-class residential neighbourhoods, commercial districts and spectacular resorts.
The $1 billion project, which will have a unifying architectural theme, smart city environment, a fast new road network, medical and educational facilities, and all the sports and entertainment amenities required in today’s hi-tech lifestyle, will usher in a new standard of living in Bahrain, according to the developer.
The 30 million sq ft Amwaj Islands will include the following components: Al Marsa, ready-built canal-front villas; Zawaya, beautiful houses perched over the water’s edge; Gateway, spectacular apartments at the doorstep of the project; Saraya Al Bahar, designer villas on common or private beach; Tala, town-houses, villas and apartments in an exclusive gated neighbourhood setting, overlooking the tranquil Amwaj lagoon; and Meena 7, stylish apartments on the seafront in the heart of the trendy Al Marsa village. Also there’s Fanar Resort, hotel and recreational area to the west of the islands, which includes a 100-berth marina and retail centre. The islands also includes a number of developments such as the Amwaj Plaza which are being developed by private investors and Al Marsa Floating City, which includes around 215 waterfront villas/chalets and flats covering an area of 53,430 sq m
Another tourist attraction called the Al Areen Desert Spa and Resort is to be 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.
Plans are under way on a $24 million project to turn an old favourite in Bahrain – the Adhari Park – into a theme park, with the help of with private investment 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.
Called The Bahrain Royal Equestrian and Horse Racing Club development, the project, to be undertaken by Wiggins with the World Bank as the consultant, covers a huge 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.
The race course and equestrian club will be developed and managed by Wiggins on a 99-year lease from the government. However, the villas and apartments will be freehold properties, and sold to citizens, GCC nationals and expatriates.
More airlines are winging their way into Bahrain: 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 last 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.
Bahrain’s hotel industry continues to grow with some impressive developments. Last 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!
Among projects under way, the Diplomat Radisson SAS’ new fully-furnished serviced apartments is under construction adjacent to the exiting property and is scheduled to open in 2006. Called The Residence, the high-rise tower will feature 121 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments and a luxury spa.
Also on the drawing board is a BD150 million ($400 million) shopping and leisure resort at Seef called the Bahrain City Centre complex. The 1.5 million sq ft mall will house the Middle East’s largest cinema complex (20 screens) and more than 150 shops. It will also feature a family entertainment centre and two hotels, with a combined total of 700 rooms.
The resort – which will also be home to the largest water park in the Middle East – is scheduled to open in 2007. And the latest deluxe property to make its debut in Bahrain is Accor’s Mercure brand, which has just opened an all-suite deluxe property in Seef. Called the Mercure Grand Hotel, the 17-storey, four-star property has 72 one-bedroom and 48 two-bedroom suites, equipped with kitchenettes, TVs, en-suite or separate bathrooms. and a business corner with internet access.
There are also smoking and non-smoking floors and suites for disabled guests.
The penthouse on the top floor has a private swimming pool with panoramic views and is luxuriously furnished, with two bedrooms, a lounge, dining room, library, large kitchen and maid’s quarters. The outdoor swimming pool is also located on the rooftop as is a Jacuzzi, children’s pool and Sama Pool Bar where regular theme nights and barbeques can be held.