Bahrain’s planners want tourism to one day represent a fifth of the country’s gross national product (GNP), but if that target appears overly ambitious to some, take a look at the latest impressive statistics: five million visitors spent over one billion tourist dinars on the island in 2004.
The five million visitors last year also show how Bahrain’s tourism industry has grown over two decades, compared to 1985, when a mere 64,000 tourists visited the island. Today, the majority of the tourists – 82 per cent – come from neighbouring Gulf countries.
Tourism spending also has increased from BD780 million ($2.06 billion) in 1995 to more than BD1 billion ($2.655 billion) in 2004.
Bahrain’s tourism industry currently represents nine to 10 per cent of its GNP and the Information Ministry is now working with the Economic Development Board (EDB) to increase it to 20 per cent in the coming years.
Mubarak Saad Al Atwi, the assistant undersecretary at Bahrain’s Tourism Affairs, says that immediate plans are to raise this number of visitors to seven million by 2010. “We can easily achieve this, which translates into 10 per cent growth annually,’’ he says.
‘‘The Formula One event was the break we desperately needed,” he says. “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.”
In addition to mega events such as the Formula One, Atwi says that Tourism Affairs is wooing families with shopping, heritage and cultural festivals, to ensure year-round tourist traffic. “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 explains. “We have historical attractions, good museums, a cosmopolitan culture and state-of-the-art facilities. These provide us with an enormous marketing advantage.”
New resorts such as the Durrat Al Bahrain, Amwaj Islands and the Al Areen Desert and Spa Resort will also help the marketing initiative, and Tourism Affairs is looking seriously at developing more public beaches 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.
Following last year’s record of five million tourists, 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 the diversity it offers. 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 and projects such as the Durrat Al Bahrain, Amwaj Islands, the Al Areen Desert and Spa Resort and the Bahrain City Centre will also help the marketing initiative, and Tourism Affairs is looking seriously at developing more public beaches on the island.”
Atwi admits that the MICE sector needs some restructuring and that Bahrain has not had great success with its 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 and many ministries and other agencies will have to be involved.
‘‘It would be great if the private sector took the initiative to promote such events.” In order to make such events successful, whether during summer or Christmas, Atwi wants to enlist the support of national carrier Gulf Air, travel agents and hoteliers, to offer packages for international tourists.
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 rather than competitive. We have different themes and products. Our style is also different,” he says.