By Jerad Bachar
Bahrain has long provided a warm and open welcome to international travellers and businesses, and as the Kingdom undergoes an economic transformation, its strength as a tourism destination is set to become a cornerstone of its diversification strategy.
As the first economy in the GCC to diversify away from oil, decades of reform have established firm foundations for Bahrain’s tourism sector to build upon.
Today, Bahrain’s tourism industry is booming. The Kingdom welcomed 11.4 million visitors in 2017, a number expected to reach 15 million annual visitors by 2020 – equivalent to nine times the Kingdom’s population! The sector also provides 58,000 jobs and accounts for 9.7% of GDP, with tourism revenues projected to top $1 billion by 2020.
There are many reasons why Bahrain has been so successful in attracting visitors, but one of its greatest strengths is the unique diversity of its attractions, and the peaceful co-existence of tradition and modernity. From exquisitely preserved heritage sites and thriving cultural centres to five-star luxury hotels and the thrill of international sport, Bahrain brings together the best of past, present and future.
For those on the hunt for ancient treasures, Bahrain’s 4,000 year-old history has left many gems. The island of Muharraq is home to the Pearling Trail – a UNESCO World Heritage site – which stretches 3.5km and features 17 historical buildings. Founded in 2,300 BC, Bahrain Fort, also a World Heritage site, stands as a testament to the influence of the ancient Dilmun civilisation, and features in the world’s oldest surviving literary epic, The Epic of Gilgamesh.
In terms of modern Bahraini culture, parts of Manama such as Adliya are developing an increasingly vibrant and diverse cultural scene, including live entertainment, theatre, music, exhibitions and world-class cuisine. Additionally, each year, the Spring of Culture festival provides an opportunity to witness some of the region’s top artistic talents as well as stars from around the world, with recent performers include Eric Clapton, John Legend and Rita Ora.
Bahrain’s attractions as a destination are driving rapid increases in demand – there were nearly 12% more visitors in 2017 compared to the year before. To help accommodate the growing demand and to unlock new potential areas for growth, we are seeing significant levels of investment. In fact, $13 billion of investment is scheduled for the tourism and leisure sector in the coming years.
One of the most exciting developments in tourism is the recent announcement of Al Sahel Resort on the southwest coast of Bahrain. Al Sahel will be the Kingdom’s first five-star resort, unlocking an area of previously untapped potential within Bahrain’s tourism industry to complement its existing strengths in city-centre travel.
Other mega-projects include the $1.1 billion Hasabi mixed-use development; $2 billion resort cities in the Durrat Dawn and Durrat Crescent developments; and Diyar Al Muharraq, a series of man-made islands hosting homes, schools, malls and more. In the heart of Manama, Bahrain Bay is set for a $2.5 billion development encompassing Bahrain Marina and a series of five-star waterfront hotels to accompany the newly opened Four Seasons and Wyndham Grand.
If retail is your top priority, Bahrain’s already enviable offer – bolstered by the recent opening of the Avenues Mall – will soon be strengthened by the Dilmunia Mall and scores more shopping centres to be developed in the next few years. These developments will cater to locals as well as regional and international tourists who have long seen Bahrain as an attractive retail hub.
And if the roar of engines is your vibe, you’re not alone. The Bahrain Grand Prix attracts 90,000 visitors each year and is a centrepiece of Bahrain’s thriving social calendar. Likewise, the Bahrain International Airshow is another attractive event that pulls in crowds from all around the world.
To cater to this demand, Bahrain has an impressive and growing roster of international hotel brands who have made the Kingdom their home, including Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, Jumeirah, Crowne Plaza, InterContinental and Radisson Blu. More brands are flocking in as the hotel stock grows fast to keep up with tourist numbers, with 4,000 new rooms planned in the coming years.
As well as real estate, we are also seeing investment in the logistics sector necessary to facilitate easy and efficient travel into and around the GCC. Gulf Air, Bahrain’s national carrier, is expanding its routes and its fleet. The recent purchase of 39 new Boeing and Airbus aircrafts is a clear indication of a growing long-haul offer to add to its best-in-class regional connectivity. Likewise, the $1.1 billion modernisation of the Bahrain International Airport is set to increase its capacity from 9 million to 14 million passengers annually by 2020, with a passenger area of 210,000sqm – four times its current size. We also continue to see new local transport options enter the market, such as the Middle East-based ride-hailing app Careem, which launched in Bahrain last year.
Alongside these investments in infrastructure, Bahrain’s government has also introduced reforms to make it easier than ever to travel to the Kingdom. Visas on arrival are now available to citizens of 67 countries, e-visas are available to visitors from 114 nations, and, thanks to a new partnership with VFS Global, Gulf Air passengers can complete their visa applications online.
Bahrain has remained a melting-pot of influences – social, cultural, and economic – throughout its history. Recent reforms reflect Bahrain’s cosmopolitan culture that has long offered a warm welcome to the world. This is most clearly reflected in the latest InterNations Expat Insider Survey, which recognized Bahrain as the best place to live in the world for expats, with the Kingdom also ranked as the best location for ‘ease of settling in’ and second in the world for ‘feeling welcome’.
These values lie at the heart of Bahrain’s outward-looking vision and business-friendly environment that has supported rapid growth in tourism in recent years. As we continue to implement significant investment in the sector, these core values will consistently underpin our growth in the decades to come.
Whether you are coming for a weekend or for twenty years, Bahrainis will always make you feel like you are in a home away from home. We look forward to welcoming you to #OursYoursBahrain.
[Jerad Bachar is Executive Director – Investment Development for Tourism, Real Estate, Education & Healthcare, Bahrain Economic Development Board.]
(Courtesy: EDB Bahrain)