Bahrain's Impressive Foray into the Tourism Industry
By Christen Buckley
MANAMA- The Kingdom of Bahrain is known as the Pearl of the Gulf. Despite its small size, Bahrain’s unique geographical position, budding economy, and charming culture make it an attractive tourist destination in the Middle East. Over the past several decades, Bahrain has established a miniscule tourism industry focused mainly around the oil industry and the business tourism that accompanies such an industry. However, over the past two years, Bahrain has begun to explore new growth in its tourism sector; tourism real estate is increasing and improving, cultural attractions are becoming a part of the community dialogue, and the nation’s foray into the diversification of the economy has added a new source of clientele for the tourism industry. This potential for the sector faces potential challenges in the wake of the political and economic difficulty the Kingdom experienced over the past ten years, especially with the uprising in February 2011 and the human rights violation allegations that followed.
When searching for tourism options in Bahrain, travelers have an impressive selection of unique cultural attractions, posh hotels, and several types of tourism to choose from.
However, the Kingdom has taken the initial steps towards the diversification of the economy and this strategy, combined with the numerous tourism assets the Kingdom possesses, has positively affected the Bahraini tourism industry’s ability to overcome economic and political challenges.
When searching for tourism options in Bahrain, travelers have an impressive selection of unique cultural attractions, posh hotels, and several types of tourism to choose from. Tourists can choose from a wide range of decadent hotels, such as the Elite Hotel and Spa in Manama, which exude leisure and relaxation, and offer high-end food and beverage options.
Manama, the historic capital, offers vibrant nightlife, prestigious spice markets, and a unique culture that combines tradition with modernity. 2012 was also the inauguration year for Bahrain’s National Theatre, one of the several cultural attractions that exposure both the recreational tourists and the business tourists to Bahraini culture. The business tourism field has also reached a unique type of development.
As the economy continues to rebound from the 2009 and 2011 lows and in the light of diversification, business tourism is growing further beyond the oil industry and thriving in other sectors, such as banking, telecom, or infrastructure development. The prevalence of the oil industry in Bahrain remains a strong part of the economy and cultural and business tourism is directly affected by the number of foreign and domestic oil investors whose trade is conducted within the tourism industry.
For the sports enthusiast tourists, major football competitions, equestrian, and other popular sporting events, such as the upcoming ladies football tournament and the Formula One car races, can all be found in Bahrain. In 2008 the Bahrain International Circuit generated an estimated 600 million generated from the F1 races. Although the Formula One races were postponed in 2011, this year the Bahrain Grand Prix, the largest venue in the Middle East, has proven to be a beacon of success for the tourism industry.
According to Sheikh Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa, CE of Bahrain International Circuit, “If we get a $220 million direct impact and the circuit cost $150 million to build then in one week we are able to cover our costs for building it. The world may not see the benefit but Bahrain does, and we need to always remind ourselves that this was the right decision.
When we started this, the difference Bahrain had compared to the region was how passionate we were to have this race. Motorsports have been part of Bahrain since the 1950’s and we were the first country to have a motorsports federation in 1952. When the decision came to grow this sport, circuit racing was the only thing missing so we needed to introduce Formula One.
As pioneers & leaders in this industry we knew that others would follow.” This year, as Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg wins the first place title for the 2013 Grad Prix, Bahrain’s reputation as a tourism destination or sporting enthusiasts is secured. According to the Center for Research on the Arab World in Mainz Germany, Bahrain’s hosting of the Formula One car races is a prime example of overall tourism growth for the Middle East, making Bahrain a leader of innovation in the tourism industry in the region.
With all of these attractions who is investing and who is partaking? According to Anurag Bajaj, General Manager of Elite Hotel and Spa, the recent growth in the tourism industry in Bahrain is the product of sophisticated marketing campaigns aimed at attracting clientele and investors.
The Center for Research on the Arab World reports that intra-Middle East tourism is on the rise and Bahrain is the number one intra-Middle East destination for Saudi tourists. However, Mr. Bajaj reports that business tourism from Europe and Americas is growing, expanding the clientele beyond the Middle Eastern region. These figures, combined with the growing presence of superior hotels and attractions, indicate the Bahrain’s venture into the diversification of their economy, and the development of the tourism sector, has a promising future.
Bahrain’s travel and tourism sector is on track to contribute 17.4% to GDP by 2021, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC). This variety in clientele and investors, and the impressive predicted growth, makes investment in the tourism industry a stable, secure, attractive decision. If the tourism sector continues to grow, Bahrain will be able to overcome the effects of the Arab Spring and the oil industry’s previous monopoly on the Bahraini economy and continue to grow as a leader of tourism innovation in the Middle East.
While the tourism industry in Bahrain displays the theoretical guarantee of success, the industry does face some challenges. Previously, much of Bahrain’s prosperity is focused in the oil and gas sector. In order to remain a contender in the burgeoning development of the Middle East, Bahrain must expand its economy and strengthen other sectors.
Bahrain has a number of natural, historical, and cultural assets that make the small Kingdom a prime candidate for a healthy tourism industry. The uprising of 2011 hindered the development of numerous economic sectors in Bahrain. Bahrain’s current political unrest and the recent bombings could provide a potential challenge the development of the tourism industry. Only the future will reveal if Bahrain can expand beyond the comfortable monopoly of the economy held by the oil and gas sector, and utilize its natural affinity to become a high-class tourist destination in the Middle East.
Despite recent setbacks connected with political climate and natural constraints, Bahrain’s immense potential in the tourism sector is undeniable. In fact, the increase in the tourism real estate and cultural attractions has helped to further diversify Bahrain’s economy by supporting other sectors through business tourism.
If Bahrain continues to develop its tourism industry, especially the business tourism sector, the Kingdom could further expand its clientele of tourists and become the strong contender in the Middle East tourism industry. Anurag Bajaj, General Manager of Elite Hotel and Spa, aptly summarizes the potential Bahrain displays in the tourism sector, “Travelers, of all ranges of interest, will find Bahrain on their maps.”