GOING TO MANAMA?

In a region beset by conflict, can Bahrain reinvent itself as a recognized tourism destination?

Spanish singer Luz Casal performs at a concert to celebrate World Tourism Day at Arad Fort, north of Manama September 27, 2011. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

Bahrain has been trying to build its tourism identity using the trusty “sun, sand, and sea" formula, which has worked well across the GCC in recent years.

The majority of arrivals to Bahrain have been from the neighboring Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but there is no reason that Bahrain's charm should not attract visitors from far and wide.

According to the World Tourism Organization (WTO), the number of arrivals in the Kingdom has been growing steadily since 2011, currently hovering at just under 12,000,000 annual visitors—an impressive figure for a country the size of Bahrain.

The arrival trends and the demographics of visitors are also changing, with the share of arrivals from outside the Middle East just beginning to pick up—which may be a sign that the country's tourism promotion campaigns are taking effect.

In 2016, Bahrain launched a brand-new national tourism strategy, the brand Bahrain campaign, to raise the tourism sector's revenue from USD700 million at the time of launching to USD1 billion by 2020.

The Ministry of Industry, Commerce and Tourism and Bahrain Tourism Authority are leading these efforts in the hope that the island country will soon be a familiar name on the wish-list of leisure travelers and the itineraries of businesspeople.

And, given Bahrain's healthy business ecosystem, turning the Kingdom into a meeting point of business travelers is not an unreasonable objective.

Bahrain was recently announced as one of the world's top 10 “business climate improvers," by the World Bank.

The recognition was the result of general improvements in the business landscape and the implementation of nine major reforms contributing to the ease of doing business and property ownership while simplifying cumbersome bureaucratic procedures for foreign and local entrepreneurs.

At the same time, Bahrain is making a name as a haven for MICE tourism.

In the next few days, venues such as Bahrain International Exhibition & Convention Center will host trade shows as diverse as the 28th edition of Jewelry Arabia, a major chocolate and coffee exhibition, and the Bahrain International Property Exhibition (Bipex), among many others.

In September 2019, The Bahrain Economic Development Board (EDB) acted as host for Bahrain Tech Week, bringing together some of the region's outstanding technology visionaries and young talent.

The primacy given to business tourism does not mean that Bahrain is ignoring leisure tourism. The sector is developing a mix of products to win the hearts and minds of different groups of travelers.

In addition to cultural attractions such as several forts and the Kingdom's national museum which houses a local collection dating back to different civilizations on the island—even as early as 5,000 years ago—Bahrain has invested in entertainment tourism.

As of 2019, there are at least seven tourism-related projects under construction, including Manama's Water Garden, which is currently undergoing renovation to the tune of BDT2.5 million.

While remaining faithful to the park's historic character, the revamping will add new and futuristic features to Manama's Water Garden.

Whether all this will trigger a boom in Bahrain's tourism industry, however, remains to be observed in indicators such as arrival trends and hotel occupancy rates, though with an estimated 25% surge in the supply of hotel rooms in the country, hoteliers will have to fight hard to raise the rates.