BITE boss urges tourism rethink

Wafa: ‘BITE is planned to be a world-class event’

JAMIL Wafa walks tall in an industry he helped nurture for more than 50 years.

Born in Palestine, Wafa made the region his playground and Bahrain his home, and his contribution to the Gulf region’s travel and tourism industry over the years has been invaluable. His tastefully decorated office overlooking the massive Bahrain Financial Harbour (BFH) development by the Manama Corniche is impeccably organized, with travel and trade memorabilia dating back over half a century, and on demand Wafa can retrieve a picture from the 50s in an instant.
But Wafa – who founded many organisations including Bahrain Airport Services (BAS), World Travel Service (WTS), Sunshine Tours (SST) and Marina Club – during his long years in the industry, is still very much a man on the move. “I’m 74 but I feel 50,” chuckles the chairman of Unitag Group.
Founder of the SKAL Club of Bahrain, he was its first president. He also established the International Advertising Association, Bahrain Chapter and was instrumental in setting up the Supreme Council of Tourism in 1985, which is now dormant.
Last year he launched a very successful travel exhibition in Bahrain, called the Bahrain International Travel Expo (BITE), with the intention of giving the island’s tourism industry a shot in the arm.
In a candid interview with TTN, the doyen of the travel industry speaks passionately about Bahrain’s tourism and what needs to be done to rejuvenate the sector. Excerpts:

What is the rationale behind BITE, your brainchild?
BITE provides a platform to promote Bahrain and its various tourism projects. We tested the waters last year by launching the event in a small way, which turned out to be a success beyond our expectations. I felt the private sector needed to take the challenge and start new initiatives and I decided to take the lead. I am happy it was a success.

How do you want to position it regionally? What are your expectations from the show?
BITE is planned to be a world-class event and will be featured in the international travel calendar as an annual show. It is a B2C show and last year attracted 12,000 people. This year the growth will be substantial. BITE will also be hosting 75 MICE specialists from around the world as hosted buyers to experience the facilities available in the kingdom. We are very grateful for the continuous support the exhibition is receiving from Sheikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the Crown Prince and Commander-in-Chief of the Bahrain Defence Force who inaugurated the BITE 2005 and will honour us this year as well with his presence.

Are you trying to compete with the ATM?
Not at all. Actually, the expo has been scheduled in such a way that we can dovetail it with the ATM so people who have come to Dubai may be interested in participating in the Bahrain expo as well. However, it is worth noting that the ATM was initially meant to alternate between Dubai and Bahrain, but the first time it was held in Bahrain, it did not succeed and so it never returned.

You are a veteran of Bahrain’s travel and tourism sector. Looking back, are you happy with the way the industry has progressed?
To be frank, I am not, as Bahrain has lost the advantages it enjoyed in the past. The kingdom was a hub for many economic activities for a long time. In the olden days people from all over the Gulf came to Bahrain on Fokker Friendships to take the BOAC, Qantas or Singapore Airlines flights. At one time we had 100 airlines coming to Bahrain and now we have only 33. Bahrain has not been able to keep pace with the developments taking place in neighbouring states. Sadly, we have been left behind.

But Bahrain attracted six million visitors last year and the numbers are expected to reach 10 million in five years...
We cannot categorise visitors from across the border as tourists. They are here for a purpose and come here regularly, if not weekly. The real tourists are the ones who come seeking a destination. To attract them, we need to develop facilities. At the moment, Bahrain alone cannot sustain a destination package and it’s prudent to link up with another country, preferably, Oman to offer such a package. Oman is ideal because of the cultural and historical links between us.

Despite pronouncements of Bahrain being a family destination, is it really one? If not, what are the ingredients that will make it one?
We have to do a lot to make Bahrain truly attractive to families. They need facilities where they can spend a week or so freely in a relaxed way. Look around Manama, we are getting busier by the day. Malls are the only places where a tourist can spend some time. It is not by filling up the sea around Manama that we can create an atmosphere for the families.

What would be your strategy for the development of tourism in the kingdom?
Bahrain has great potential to attract tourists to its shores, but a clear vision and proper direction are prerequisites for this. Frequent changes in policy will not win it any friends and understanding the nuances of tourism is the key to taking the sector to the next stage of development.
The main issues facing the sector today are the lack of infrastructure and attractions for serious tourists, awareness among industry staff and the people in general; events which will attract visitors from across the region; coordination among various authorities, sub sectors and key players within the industry; and incentives for those who invest in the sector. Let me elaborate:
Tourism infrastructure and attractions: There is a dire need for more activities and attractions for tourists. We need to invest in beaches, water parks, water sports, snow domes, gardens, science parks for children, etc. Bahrain has a rich cultural heritage and many sites of interest. But they lack basic facilities such as cafes, shades, toilets and souvenir shops. We should enhance these sites so that people will go there and explore them in a relaxed way. There should also be a kiosk at the airport to provide tourism information.
Training: Tourism revolves round offering professional services and it is important that every one in the tourism chain, from the driver to the manager, is imparted with the skills necessary to win over the tourist. We have schools for everything, why not for tourism? The taxi driver at the airport should be given a course on how to be courteous to passengers; the travel agent and the tour operator should be taken round to experience Bahrain before they can sell it. This aspect is badly overlooked.
Shows: We have some fantastic venues for shows. Arad Fort, for example, is a wonderful venue, but sits pretty idle most of the time under halogen lights.
Hotels and private organisers are reluctant to hold events for fear of last-minute bans. The atmosphere should change.
Cultural, music or dance shows bring vibrancy to the atmosphere. I do not advocate unfettered freedom, but surely we can have shows that conform to our traditions? I can’t understand why Nancy Ajram is accepted around the Gulf but not here? We have a liberal standing, let’s live by it.
A maestro needed: Tourism cannot be treated like a fringe business any more as it brings in hard cash. It should be given its own strong identity and brought under the Economic Develop Board (EDB) or another organisation so that decisions can be taken and implemented faster.
Additionally, it is important to think of Bahrain as a destination and all sub sectors must work in cohesion. There is now absolutely no co-ordination between the hotels, the airlines, travel agents and the ministry. The hotelier is just interested in filling his rooms, the airlines their seats and the travel agents selling tickets. Each one plays his own tune, there is no harmony. You need a maestro such as the EDB and the rest of them to play the music.
It is also important to leave the tourism in the hands of technocrats with the experience to do the job under the direction of a board of experts.
Incentives: The flow of private investment into the sector is important to develop infrastructure and attractions. The government can hasten this by giving incentives to the investor. This can come in the form of subsidised land, power and water, fee exemptions, etc.

How important is it to create awareness among the people and their representatives?
Bahrain is termed as the ‘Land of Golden Smiles’. We should move from slogans to making every person on the street aware of his responsibility towards a tourist. The cheer he could bring on the visitor’s face gets converted into hard currency. Tourism is an art. Look at countries which have attained great success in tourism, it is a way of life for the people there.
We need to talk to the Parliament and make them understand that there may be different demands from their constituencies. However, we are a country that relies on services and jobs can be created only by changing our thinking. We can work within our cultural traditions and still promote tourism. We can do things in moderation and yet succeed. The parliament should be addressed since this is an issue very important for our welfare, our living, our future.

There seems to be a new vigour in the market with a lot of new projects announced, especially hotels and resorts. Is this the beginning of a new era?
It is a welcome development. However, unless you open up and allow hotels to participate actively in the development of Bahrain as a destination, it’s hard to market the country. You can build 100 buildings but you need activities.

What are the major roadblocks that hinder the progress of this sector?
Bureaucracy and red tape. The success of Formula One is a clear indication of what we can achieve if we break free from the shackles of bureaucracy.

You have been quoted as saying Bahrain airport needs to regain the hub status which it enjoyed earlier. Realistically, can this happen?
It is possible, but Bahrain should have its own independent airline to achieve this. In its current state, Gulf Air will continue to lose money and mark my words, Oman will also eventually get out of the partnership as evidenced with Qatar, followed by Abu Dhabi, pulling out of the ownership of Gulf Air. Therefore, we should start a new airline or possibly take Gulf Air but downsize it. I had spoken about the need for Bahrain to take the painful decision in 2002 itself.
Also, the airline should be managed by nationals with possibly expatriate experts appointed as advisors. Look at Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad – all the front line people are actually nationals and they are doing an excellent job.

As airlines adopt new ticketing technology, will travel agents survive?
Eventually there will not be travel agencies. If there are, there will be no commissions. People who seek the services of travel agents could be charged a fee. It is already happening in the US and the UK. Bahrain has 160 travel agents for a population of 700,000 and London with almost 10 million has only 300 agents!