BAHRAIN has pledged to catch up with its freespending neighbours in a bid to re-establish itself as one of the region’s top tourist destinations.
A dedicated team has already developed a roadmap for the future of the country’s tourism industry and a new tourism development board is due to be launched later this year, said Economic Development Board (EDB) chief executive Sheikh Mohammed bin Isa Al Khalifa.
He said a number of locations had been identified as ‘high priority areas’ for tourism development across the country.
Sheikh Mohammed, however, stressed Bahrain was not attempting to replicate developments in countries such as the UAE and Oman.
“We are not going to be a new Dubai or a new Oman - we don’t want to,” he told delegates to the Bahrain International Travel Expo (BITE 2006) at the Bahrain International Exhibition Centre. He said 20 years ago, Bahrain had the best tourism facilities for both leisure and business travellers in the Gulf. “But sometimes, being first is not always a blessing. While we did continue to invest in our facilities, others began to outpace our spending and developed more dynamic tourism sectors of their own.
“Most importantly, they spent not just on infrastructure, not just on resorts and hotels, not just on airlines to get people there, but on marketing themselves as destinations too. But if that was the case for some of our recent history, it is true no longer.
“In the last few years, we have seen a resurgence in investment levels for Bahrain’s tourism sector and a resurgence in public and private sector activities to reclaim our position as a leading destination in the region. You just have to look at the Bahrain skyline to see signs of that resurgence.”
He said the Bahrain Financial Harbour (BFH) and World Trade Centre would provide new business tourism facilities to rival anywhere in the world. “Together, they will create a knockout offering and will be open by the end of the year. Yet look beyond these landmark developments and there is much, much more going on.”
He said tourism was one of six areas that the EDB was focusing on to attract investment along with financial services; the downstream sector; health, education and training; business services and logistics. “Tourism is the largest industry in the world, contributing 11 per cent of global GDP. The Gulf region is one of the most buoyant markets with strong development in leisure and business tourism, thanks in large part to heavy new investments in tourism infrastructure.”
However, Sheikh Mohammed said he still came across a sense of puzzlement when he talked about Bahrain as a tourist destination - even though tourism is one of the country’s core sectors.
He said that was because the country had gone through a period of taking its tourism sector for granted.
“We have the sun, sea and sand across our archipelago of 33 islands,” he said. “We have an incredibly rich history and heritage, with the highest density of historical and archaeological sites in the region. 'We blend the traditional, such as Muharraq old town, our uqs and our pearl diving, with the modern, such as our Formula One track, our modern shopping centres and our vibrant nightlife.
“We have one of the top 10 airline brands in the world based here, as well as road connections to the largest market in the region. And we have an open culture, characterised by the welcoming and tolerant nature of our people.”
On new developments that would complement Bahrain’s drive to be a tourist destination, Shaikh Mohammed said Gulf Air had increased flights into Bahrain by 36 per cent - into an airport that is itself investing B80 million in expanding its facilities.
“Our causeway to Saudi Arabia will soon be joined by a causeway to Qatar, bringing Doha within a couple of hours’ drive. Our hotel stock has increased and is increasing dramatically. Existing brands such as the Ritz-Carlton, the Gulf Hotel and the Diplomat have renovated and extended their buildings, while new entrants such as Four Seasons, Renaissance and Banyan Tree are developing new properties and resorts across the island.”
Other developments such as Amwaj Islands, Durrat Al Bahrain, Lulu Island, Abraaj Al Lulu and Bahrain Bay are all expected to deliver impressive new facilities from this year onwards, said Shaikh Mohammed.
He also said that the country was focusing on developing its historical sites to attract more tourists.
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