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Manama goes all out to woo international holidaymakers

The 33-island archipelago has Four Seasons Bahrain on its own luxury island off Manama
  • Bahrain seeks to increase tourist numbers to 14.1m by 2026
  • New $1.1bn passenger terminal at Bahrain International Airport
  • Fatima Al-Sairafi becomes tourism minister in reshuffle
  • Focus on growing GCC, US, Asian and European traffic

If the number of people that poured into Bahrain in March for the Formula 1 Grand Prix is any guide, the country’s tourism prospects look bright.

One observer reported seeing more private jets at the airport than ever before, and the race-day attendance of 35,000 fans was a record.

Those signs of revival from the pandemic were confirmed in late June, when the Information and eGovernment Authority said 1.7 million people had visited Bahrain during the first quarter of 2022, more than ten times the 152,000 arrivals recorded in the same period last year.

These are heartwarming numbers for the authorities, who need to rebuild a tourism industry from the ground up. 

“Covid has been the story for the past few years,” Ali Murtaza, executive director for tourism business development at the Economic Development Board, says.

“We’ve opened up the country in phases and there has been a huge increase in visitor numbers in the first quarter of this year.

“Hopefully we can hit nine million visitors this year and reach pre-pandemic figures next year.”

The government wants these figures to keep on increasing over the next few years. In November the then industry, commerce and tourism minister Zayed Al-Zayani set out a new tourism strategy for 2022-26, with some ambitious targets.

Grass, Plant, Person
The new Bahrain International Exhibition and Convention Centre is almost complete

Speaking at the Bahrain International Exhibition & Convention Centre – a facility still under development which will be the largest of its kind in the region – he said the country is seeking to increase tourist numbers to 14.1 million by 2026, with the average visitor staying 3.5 days.

The government wants the tourism sector to account for 11.4 percent of GDP by 2026, up from around seven percent before the pandemic. 

Al-Zayani lost his tourism portfolio as part of a cabinet reshuffle in June, with Fatima Al-Sairafi taking over the file. The same strategy remains in place though, based on four main elements: making it easier to enter the country; developing the range of attractions on offer; improving the accommodation options; and using national airline Gulf Air to market the country.

For an island nation like Bahrain, the last of these is obviously a vital element.

On June 29 King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa inaugurated the new $1.1 billion passenger terminal at Bahrain International Airport, in the company of visiting Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. 

The project was launched in 2016 with substantial help from the Abu Dhabi Fund for Development, and most of the work was completed by 2020, allowing the terminal to start operating in January 2021.

Person, Human, People
Trained local guides give visitors half day city tours

Since then more departure gates have been added. The new terminal is four times bigger than the one it replaced and is able to handle around 14 million passengers a year – coincidentally, the same number of tourists the country hopes to attract by 2026.

For now, though, the most important entry point is the King Fahd Causeway from Saudi Arabia. According to data from the Ministry of Industry, Commerce & Tourism, around 85 percent of visitors in the first quarter of this year arrived via that route. 

Some Bahrainis are concerned that visitor numbers may tail off in the future as Saudi reforms gain momentum, and more people decide that spending vacation time in the kingdom is no longer such an undesirable prospect.

Officials in Manama contend that it will take a long time for its larger neighbour to replicate the choice Bahrain can offer, from pearl diving to a jazz festival and a local comedy scene.

The availability of alcohol is another important selling point. “Saudi Arabia is changing, but it will take time to replicate the maturity of our offering. It won’t happen overnight,” said one official.

A number of other projects are also being developed that could help draw in more visitors, including the Bahrain Bay Beach and Qalali Coast Waterfront projects, the Mantis eco-resort on the Hawar Islands near Qatar, the Jumeirah Gulf of Bahrain resort and the Bilaj Al-Jazayer resort. 

Castle, Architecture, Building
History and culture: the Qala’at Al-Bahrain was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century

Just as critical as developing more places to stay is expanding travel options so people can reach the country more easily.

“Tourism from the rest of the GCC is imperative, there’s no doubt about that,” Murtaza says.

“The tourism strategy is focused on growing both the GCC and non-GCC traffic. The idea is to attract a lot more people from different markets.

“We will soon have direct flights to the US, while we are already well connected with important markets like the UK, Europe and Asia.”

One other challenge when reaching out further afield is name recognition, something Murtaza acknowledges will take time to address. Attracting more big sporting events like Formula 1 would make that task far easier, of course.

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