WALKING into the office of the CEO of Bahrain Hotels Company, Aqeel Raees one is greeted by a rather large black and white photograph of what seems to be — at first glance — an oasis in the center of a tide plain. But look again: the picture is of the Gulf Hotel taken back in 1974, and its shows you how far the island of Bahrain has grown over a quarter of a century.
Gulf Hotel was the first five-star hotel in Bahrain, and it has stood the test of time and more than weathered the winds of change that have buffeted so many others.
“The hospitality industry has changed a lot over the past decade,” says Raees. “We haven’t had many new five-star hotels come up in Bahrain. Of course we’ve had quality hotels like the Novotel and the Mövenpick, but they’re four-star.”
With the increase in the number of conferences and exhibitions being held in Bahrain, Raees feels that supply for hotel rooms has grown considerably. But it is in the tourism sector that he has his doubts. “Tourists want beaches. Bahrain has the sun, but nowhere to relax and enjoy it.”
Hinting at the rest of the Gulf, Raees says: “All over the world countries are reclaiming land to build more beaches, but not here.”
Raees also stressed the importance of brining local society into the fold, by making it feel secure in the fact that tourism does not necessarily mean a desecration of traditional values and mores. “Bahrain has always been a multi-cultural society,” says Raees. “Just look at the number of different nationalities that live here. It paints a clear picture of the good nature of Bahrainis.”
But there’s work to be done. Raees believes that Bahrain must adopt a policy of zoning. “I do think zoning is very important. A case in point is what has occurred in the Exhibition Road area over the past few years. That was a residential area originally, but now a number of one- and two-star hotels have come up, with bars and nightclubs. It’s unfair on the residents who, when they bought the property, never expected these hotels to be constructed. Residents should not be punished.”
He is also of the well-founded belief that tourism must be promoted not only to the tourist but to the local populace as well. “We have to show the local society that tourism is not only about alcohol and nightclubs.”
A corollary of that belief is that economic development must create jobs for the local community. If it doesn’t, he says, then the venture is fruitless.
Raees is not alone in putting beaches and zoning on pedestals, as it were. Other hoteliers too have called for such measure to bolster the industry. So why then have these voices not been heard? “For a long time there was no long-term tourism strategy in place,” he says. “Now there is an independent body in place and that’s good. You need someone with experience, whether they’re local or not, to head such a body. Previously the tourism authority used to just be a department within the ministry, so this is a step in the right direction. We need people who can get things done.”
The Bahrain Hotels Company is coming off a very profitable year. It made a $10.30 million profit, up 18 per cent from last year. “We had a very successful year last year. The profits exceeded our expectations,” says Raees. Now BHC is looking to spread its wings. “Our resort in Zanzibar has been doing very well. But rather than build new properties we are looking abroad for management contracts, especially in India and Doha. A lot of the money will be put back into the Gulf Hotel BHC’s flagship property in Bahrain]. We are currently undertaking massive renovations and refurbishment projects. Our Japanese restaurant Sato is being extended, as is our pub Sherlock Holmes. We are also landscaping our parking area and building a multi-storey car park, among other projects.” The Gulf Hotel has also recently opened a serviced apartment complex, which aims at providing a home a way from home for guests staying there. “Our target clientele are those who are coming to Bahrain to start business ventures, short stay guests and the business traveler. We offer all the services of a five-star hotel, but in a space that feels like home,” he says.
Raees is a supporter of the spurt in serviced apartments currently underway in Bahrain: “This trend is a good thing for the industry on the island,” he says. “If we build more hotels and apartments tourists will come. We should not wait for demand to outstrip supply before we start building. It also makes Bahrain easier to sell to the world, because we have something concrete to show them.”
BHC will be exhibiting at ATM 2006. “We will certainly be there as part of the World Hotels Group and the Bahrain stand. I think these sort of shows are very important because it allows you to keep up-to-date on the latest industry trends and meet people you haven’t met in a long time.”