Capital gains: With attractions old and new, Manama is becoming a destination of note for culture and leisure

It has long been recognised that the Kingdom’s tourism offering needs to remain dynamic and continue to develop as competition from elsewhere in the region intensifies. Fortunately, the government appears to recognise this and has taken steps to support the development of the private sector’s tourism offerings.

“In the past, we relied on regional visitors who traditionally came to Bahrain for family or business reasons,” said Nada Yaseen, the assistant undersecretary at the Ministry of Culture’s Tourism Directorate. “Now we are expanding to reach a more international audience for leisure and meetings, incentives, conferences, and exhibitions (MICE) activity.”

Though there are a number of large-scale projects in development in various corners of the country – including Durrat Al Bahrain in the south and the Amwaj man-made islands, among others – much of Bahrain’s tourism spending is focused on the capital, Manama. Already home to a dense mix of hotels, offices and prime retail space, Manama is evolving into a cultural and leisure destination of note.

ARAB CULTURE: In line with this, 2012 marks Manama’s debut as the “Arab Capital of Culture”, a distinction awarded by UNESCO. The Ministry of Culture has planned a year-long programme of activities to celebrate: each month will see a series of performances, lectures and initiatives to showcase Arab culture.

Efforts are being made to attract tourists across a diverse spectrum of interests. February will focus on architecture, which will include an open competition for the redevelopment of Bab Al Bahrain, the capital’s historic souq. In April 2012, Bahrain will play host to an international convention for natural and environmental heritage preservation. Then in September, the Kingdom will showcase a number of musicians as part of the 21st annual Bahrain International Music festival.

The Bahrain International Music festival, which also includes rotating installations at Bahrain’s National Museum, should help to raise the country’s profile as a destination for visitors from neighbouring countries. The Kingdom will then have the opportunity to build on the experience it gains in 2012, as it is set to host another regional distinction in 2013 when it becomes the Capital of Arab Tourism.

THEATRE, MUSIC, DANCE: In concert with the yearlong festival, March’s “Spring of Culture” festival brought a variety of theatrical, musical and dance performances to the country, most of them held in the historical Arad Fort. The event was considered a resounding success, with performances from international stars such as Andrea Bocelli and Julio Iglesias selling out quickly.

Preparations for the Capital of Arab Culture have also included a new National Theatre, which is set to be completed in November 2012. A fully equipped performance hall for theatre and music performances, the new facility will be an important addition to Bahrain’s cultural landscape, providing a space for international artists, as well as a venue to develop Bahraini theatre. The BD19m ($50.16m) project, designed by the French Architecture Studio and overseen by WS Atkins and Partners Overseas, will be located next to the Bahrain National Museum in Manama.

BRINGING IN BUSINESS: An important part of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce’s overall strategy for the 2010-12 period is to promote the Kingdom’s MICE tourism segment (see analysis) as a way to diversify the country’s tourism offerings.

Bahrain’s current exhibition space is centred in downtown Manama at the Bahrain International Exhibition and Conference Centre (BIECC). Building on strong years in 2009 and 2010, the 16,000-sq-metre hall enjoyed consistent traffic through 2011, with the Bahrain Exhibition and Convention Authority (BECA), which runs the BIECC, reporting no cancellations.

BECA’s responsibilities include local and international marketing for the conference space, as well as administering the various exhibitions and conferences that are scheduled to take place there. The authority’s mandate includes an obligation to support and encourage local traders who wish to organise or participate in domestic and international exhibitions, in conjunction with the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Additional exhibition and conference space is provided by many of Bahrain’s hotels. The Gulf Hotel, in particular, offers some 4780 sq metres for exhibitions, which is spread out over 29 flexible venues. Its convention centre also includes a space to hold theatre-style conferences for up to 2200 attendees.

Bahrain’s current exhibition space, while well-respected and very popular, is considered to be limited in terms of available space, particularly when compared to the kind of mega-conference facilities that neighbouring countries, such as Qatar and Dubai, have invested in. To address this and meet the current demand, a joint stock company was formed in August 2010 to oversee the development of a sizeable new conference facility, known as Bahrain Expo City, or expo@Bahrain.

The conference facility will be located next to the Formula One (F1) track in Sakhir. The shareholders in the projects development include: BECA; Mumtalakat Holding Company, the government investment fund; and the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

As of March 2012, bidding for the consultancy contract has been finalised, and the winning company is expected to be named in the near future. The contract will cover consultancy services for the first phase of the project, including the overall infrastructure, main building design and cost estimates. It is expected that the first phase of the project will carry a $385m price tag, and completion is targeted for 2015.

REVITALISING THE SOUQ: Manama’s historical souq, with its dense network of shops offering spices, jewellery and fabrics, has long been at the top of the list for tourists looking to experience a traditional Arab bazaar. Bab Al Bahrain has become a standard destination for cruise ships docking in the Kingdom. The market, located in the heart of the capital’s old business district, has been facing increasing competition from a number of new local malls and shopping centres, which feature high-end technologies and luxury brands.

In a bid to revitalise the shopping quarter, and as part of the celebrations to mark Manama’s choice as the Capital of Arab Culture 2012, the Ministry of Culture has partnered with the municipal authorities to initiate a major redesign of the city’s historical district. The complex surrounding the Bab Al Bahrain, or “Gateway to Bahrain”, a handsome white colonial-style gateway that marks the entry into the souq, is slated to be renovated and restored in the coming year. An architectural competition was held in February of 2012, and the winning design includes a substantial revision to the building’s courtyard, which will see the installation of a new park, as well as garden space.

Also under discussion is a plan to turn the neighbouring post office and police station into museums that will showcase the histories of these institutions. In addition to the cosmetic improvements designed to restore the old quarter without losing its historical character, the souq is due for infrastructural improvements, such as a car park, better roads and improved sanitation.

INVESTMENT & DEVELOPMENT: Bab Al Bahrain is not the only part of the capital city in line for an overhaul. The former Pearl Roundabout, now known as Al Farooq Junction, has been recast by the government as a major investment zone. An overall plan for the Manama Central Market, as the project has been branded, is set to be revealed in June 2012 by Tashgeel, which was awarded the contract to oversee the BD200m ($528.04m) redevelopment project in August 2011. A preliminary study is expected to finish in 2013, with construction beginning the following year. The project will take six years to complete, according to announcements from the Manama Municipality. Yousif Al Ghatam, the director-general of the Manama Municipality, has said the contract stipulates that Tashgeel will be required to pay penalties if the revamp does not begin within two years. The development is set to include four 28-storey office and shopping towers, a new market, a heritage village and a five-star hotel.

The Manama Central Market project was initially proposed in 2008, but was delayed following the onset of the global downturn. The announcement of the development’s progress, as well as the impending penalty if all does not go to plan, are a reassuring sign that the government and property developers are confident that the business climate is returning to normal.

STEPPING UP: This is good news, both for investors and for the sector in general. The government has proven itself more than willing to step up spending in times of less private demand. In addition to providing infrastructure and, through Mumtalakat Holding Company and other government investment arms, directly investing in the sector, the Ministry of Tourism actively markets Manama abroad. In 2011-12, the capital’s attractions have had a state-sponsored presence at WTM London, BWTM Berlin, and ATM Dubai, among others. However, the long-term success of the sector rests on the development of a well-diversified set of attractions that will draw both new and repeat visitors. The breadth of projects under way in Manama – from festivals to renovations of historical structures – looks set to do just that.

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The Report: Bahrain 2012

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