Growth hopes high ...

Bahrain's tourism industry is confident of steady growth in visitor numbers, escaping a severe downturn in the wake of US attacks. TTN reports.
Developing attractions ... The Le Royal Meridien beach and marina.

Tourism is expected to continue to grow in Bahrain fuelled by government and private sector efforts to attract visitors with promotional campaigns aimed at diverse and special interest markets.

And both government and industry sources say Bahrain is likely to escape a severe downturn as a result of the September 11 terror attacks in the US as a majority of visitors to the island are from neighbouring GCC states, many of whom arrive by road.

Bahrain's hotel industry did experience a spate of cancellations from the US and Europe immediately after the September 11 events with the axing or postponement of some international conferences scheduled during October and November, tourism officials said.

But in line with several other neighbouring states, Bahrain's hospitality industry has begun to recover with many hotels reporting occupancy levels similar or slightly more than pre-September 11 attacks.

The airline industry however is in for a long haul with a sharp slump in travel worldwide and Bahrain-based Gulf Air, along with other regional and international carriers, is conducting a major review of its longer term operations while taking immediate-term measures to control the damage.

"Even though the September 11 attacks in the US may reduce the growth rate during the fourth quarter, we do not anticipate the effects to be considerable, mainly because 75 per cent of arrivals are nationals and residents of the neighbouring GCC countries, who usually drive to Bahrain," said assistant under-secretary for Tourism Dr Kadhem Rajab.

Business arrivals in Bahrain increased by 36 per cent last year, thanks largely to successful government efforts in promoting the country as a business destination, he said.

Tourism officials said that Bahrain's efforts to attract diversified markets such as archaeology, ecology, pearl diving and MICE, combined with development of service infrastructure and modern recreational and shopping facilities will ensure that tourism continues to grow at a steady pace.

The expansion of Seef Mall, the opening of Bahrain Mall and new hotels and resorts in the pipeline such as the Al Dana Resort and the airport Movenpick hotel which are to open next year are certain to enhance Bahrain's appeal as a safe and interesting tourist destination.

As part of its efforts to fuel tourism, Bahrain is also throwing open its skies and launching a major airport expansion, to cope with soaring demand.

A new runway and control tower are to be built at the airport, technology is being upgraded and international airlines are being invited to operate "without restriction".

Flights in an out of the airport are expected to hit 39,500 this year, up from 37,060 last year and 31,126 in 1999.

Transportation Minister Shaikh Ali bin Khalifa Al Khalifa who unveiled the blueprint for growth recently, said no airlines would face restrictions on their operations.

"Any company planning to introduce its services to Bahrain will be given all the support from Shaikh Ali who will personally intervene to ensure its smooth operation," said a statement issued by Civil Aviation Affairs.

Such a policy would emphasise Bahrain's pioneering role as a hub for air traffic in the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East, as well as being a transit point for travellers from around the world, Shaikh Ali said.

Developments at the airport, including the expansion of the Bahrain Duty Free section, the construction of a new hotel and the increase in the number of food outlets, all aim to provide better services to travellers, he said.

He unveiled plans to build a new state-of-the-art control tower, which will ensure the highest level of safety.

A study to upgrade an existing taxiway to become a second runway has been completed and work will start soon, said Shaikh Ali.

Automatic landing equipment used at the airport is also being upgraded.

The aim is to make the airport one of the most modern and technologically advanced in the region, said Shaikh Ali.

He said work was under way on the Bahrain Duty Free area, which will open at the Departures Lounge at the end of the year.

Other developments at the airport include a BD3 million ($7.9 million) facelift, which includes new first and business class lounges.

The island welcomed a record 3.3 million visitors last year and the arrivals until July this year had already hit the 2.2 million mark, a significant achievement for a country which received just 64,000 visitors in 1986 when the King Fahd Causeway link to Saudi Arabia was inaugurated.

Since the late 1980s, tourist arrivals in Bahrain have increased by an average of 20 per cent annually, a testimony to the island's appeal among GCC and overseas visitors.

According to official figures, a total of 3.14 million came into the country through the causeway while another 719,802 visitors arrived by air and 6,223 by sea - the figures highlighting the regional nature of Bahrain's tourism.

Until June this year, Bahrain welcomed more than 1.5 million visitors through the causeway while another 318,259 came by air.