For the last 10 years the Bahrain Formula 1 Grand Prix has concluded with the winner being doused in waard, a local carbonated rosewater drink. In 2014 the tradition continued with the UK’s Lewis Hamilton being congratulated in this manner after winning the first-ever night race in the event’s history. The continued success of the race is perhaps the clearest sign of Bahrain’s emerging status as a sports tourism destination.
The Grand Prix is the most popular event on Bahrain’s sporting calendar, and attracts visitors from around the world. The annual event takes place at the 70,000-capacity Bahrain International Circuit (BIC), which was completed in 2004 and is the newest sports facility in the country. The hosting of Bahrain’s first Formula 1 night race in 2014 involved installing 500 km of cabling, 450 poles and 5000 lighting instillations at the BIC, with the works taking six months to complete. Night racing means more calendar dates and is also more convenient for mid-week racing. Daytime racing on the track is difficult from May until September due to the country’s high temperatures.
The upgrade is part of the planned development of the BIC as a destination for both business and leisure. The BIC also intends to expand its Saqir facility significantly in the coming decades. The country hopes to develop a 1m-sq-metre light/medium industrial park focused on the automotive industry, as well as a convention centre. As part of the effort to expand its leisure offerings, the facility will include retail space, a cinema, restaurants, cafes and either one or two hotels. Construction is set to begin by year-end 2015.
Bahrain was the first country within the MENA region to be granted an annual Formula 1 tour event. It was followed by the establishment of the Abu Dhabi Formula 1 race in 2009. In many ways the addition of the Abu Dhabi event has brought new opportunities to the region by complementing the country’s existing race and helping to foster the development of a racing culture in the GCC. Indeed, before the introduction of the Bahrain race in 2004 coverage of Formula 1 in media outlets throughout the GCC was limited, but now it is commonplace.
The annual Formula 1 event is just one example of the BIC’s capacity to host major international automotive sporting events. The facility has also hosted the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) Formula 1 World Championship, the Australian V8 Supercar Championship Series, the Chevrolet Lumina Series, an edition of the GP2 Series and several endurance motor-racing events, including 6 Hours of Bahrain and the FIA World Endurance Championship. In addition, the BIC has also held a number of sports industry events, including the FIA Summit on Medicine in Motorsport and the Motor Sport Business Forum, and in 2014 it co-hosted the Bahrain International Air Show and Bahrain International Motor Show.
Emerging Golf Destination
In 2011 the kingdom also hosted the World Volvo Golf Championship, which featured a tournament of champions format. The event offered an opportunity for European Tour winners to compete against amateurs. While the championship has since been held in South Africa, it was an important event that showed Bahrain’s potential. The country has one of the longest traditions of golf in the Middle East. In 1938, the Awali Golf Club was established for off-duty oil workers. The sand-only, 18-hole, 6309-yard, par-70 course still exists today and is maintained and operated by Bahrain Petroleum Company, though guests are also allowed to use the facilities.
The country’s premiere golf destination, however, is Bahrain Royal Golf Club (BRGC). The BRGC’s 7102-yard, par-72, 18-hole championship course was designed by professional golfer Colin Montgomerie. The club also maintains a nine-hole, par-three course, as well as fitness, leisure and dining facilities. The property is managed by Troon, a golf course management group, whose contract to operate the facility runs through 2022.
According to Stephen Havrill, the general manager of the BRGC, “Bahrain has a lot to offer as a golf tourism destination. The kingdom is currently trying to host a European Seniors Tour event at the BRGC and talks are ongoing for a possible March 2015 date,” he told OBG. “We also have several initiatives geared around our player development programmes, as well as ‘stay-and-play’ packages. Troon Golf and the BRGC are optimistic Bahrain can play a role in promoting golf throughout the GCC.” In January 2014, the Bahrain Volvo World Golf Challenge was launched. This new event includes six qualification rounds and is designed to attract both golf professionals as well as local amateurs.
One of the keys to Bahrain’s success in sports tourism will be to develop packaged opportunities. Here the BRGC leads the way with green fees, cart and full equipment packages available for business travellers in Bahrain. Havrill also told OBG that the course is seeing a higher number of visitors from Saudi Arabia, particularly on the weekends. Course organisers also hope that the landing of a European Seniors Tour event will help to attract a greater number of golf enthusiasts to Bahrain from the GCC area, as well as from Europe and Asia, perhaps as soon as March 2015.
The kingdom is also working to bring in other global events. On December 6, 2014 it held a triathlon, Challenge Bahrain, the first of any kind in its history. Featuring total prize money of $500,000, it was the world’s richest half-Ironman triathlon, and involved a 1.9-km swim, 90 km on a bike and a run of 21 km. The route ran from southern Bahrain to Muharraq along a route that took in some of the main cultural sites. Another niche sporting event was held in May 2014, when Amwaj Marina hosted the kingdom’s first 4-km obstacle race, which involved around 200 participants.
Another opportunity is presented by the Bahrain Ar Rifa Horse Racing complex in Saqir. While currently focusing on domestic horse racing, there is in increasing interest in reviving traditional camel racing as well. In December 2012, the Ministry of Municipalities Affairs and Urban Planning called for a revival of camel racing in Bahrain as a way to support the country’s camel breeding industry. Roughly 2000 head of camel are currently kept in Bahrain.
The Great Game
In 2013, the Gulf Cup of Nations was hosted in Bahrain, marking the 20th occasion the biennial football competition has been held in the GCC region and the fourth time that the kingdom has hosted the event. Bahrain finished a respectable fourth and the event was a major success for the tourism industry. More than 319,000 fans came to watch, with an average attendance of 19,938 per match. The tournament generated significant air traffic as well. There were an extra 140 flights outside of BIA’s schedule, of which some 90 were on the final match day on January 18 (both arriving and departing). This was due to the UAE government’s offer of free flights to Bahrain for Emirati citizens to watch their team play in the final. Bahrain also hosted the Gulf Cup of Nations U-17 and U-23 events. The Gulf Cup of Nations is a non-FIFA event, but the organisation has signalled that were the event to move to the same calendar as the Africa Cup of Nations, recognition would be forthcoming.
As part of hosting the event, Bahrain National Stadium (BNS), which first opened in 1982, was renovated with new a grandstand roof, seating, pitch and fences. The interior and turnstiles were also upgraded. The country’ second major stadium is located in Al Najma. The Al Najma stadium originally opened in 1968 and underwent refurbishment in 2007. It now seats 20,000 people and hosted nine matches as part of the 2013 Gulf Cup of Nations. Bahrain’s domestic football league also boasts smaller stadiums that are used by teams throughout the kingdom.
Zain Bahrain Basketball Arena in Um Al Hassa hosted the 13th Gulf Basketball Championship, which served as a qualifying tournament for the 2013 International Basketball Federation (FIBA) Asia Championship. Bahrain finished second in the tournament. This event and Bahrain’s strong finish puts the kingdom in a good position to host the FIBA Asia Championship tournament. Only Riyadh and Doha have hosted the event within the GCC and no Gulf state has hosted it since 2005.
With a new triathlon event established on the calendar and a golf tournament potentially in the works, Bahrain is continuing to search for new marquee events. The Formula 1 Grand Prix will continue to be the kingdom’s major sporting event going forward, and the expansion of Formula 1 in the GCC, with events in both Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, bodes well for the sport as it works to build a regional fan base. For event promoters looking for venues Bahrain offers the BIC and BNS, as well as several smaller stadiums. The addition of a professional golf event and a major triathlon should help to round out the sporting calendar and make the country a year-round destination for sports tourists.
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