By almost any accounting, Bahrain’s tourist trade weathered a difficult year in 2011; however, not all of the Kingdom’s tourism segments were affected, nor have the fundamental strengths that have made it a leading destination for business travel been damaged. Indeed, Bahrain’s performance and outlook as a site for meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) remains a bright spot for the country.
Business tourism has traditionally proven less sensitive to negative publicity than other forms of tourism, and MICE tourism in Bahrain has remained strong over the past year. Its durability gives reason to expect that business and MICE tourism may sustain, and even grow, Bahrain’s tourist trade in the short-to-medium term.
STRENGTH TO STRENGTH: Bahrain has enjoyed many competitive advantages as a MICE destination. As it is a small island nation with centrally located facilities and well-developed road infrastructure, getting to and from the Kingdom is relatively easy for time-conscious business travellers. Bahrain’s airport boasts a plethora of international connections to Europe and Asia, and its physical proximity to Saudi Arabia makes Bahrain an attractive choice for companies looking to conduct business with the neighbouring kingdom. The Bahrain Exhibition and Convention Authority’s (BECA) was named “the best MICE destination in the Middle East” by Business Destinations magazine in 2011, and this testifies to the positive impression the Kingdom’s facilities and services have made on its visitors.
The Bahrain International Exhibition and Convention Centre (BIECC), a 16,000-sq-metre facility located in Manama’s city centre – no more than 10 minutes’ drive from all of the major hotels – plays host to the lion’s share of exhibition and convention traffic. Opened in 1991 and managed by BECA, it was open for business and functions throughout the recent unrest and remained heavily booked through 2011. The consistently high demand for the space at BIECC, bolstered by its high customer retention rate, has enabled the convention authority to keep its rental rates competitive.
EXPO: The hosting of the Bahrain Air Show, the Kingdom’s largest exposition, in January 2012 was a success, with substantial sales recorded. The air show saw sales of $930m, down only slightly on the $1bn achieved in 2010. Bahrain’s proximity to Saudi Arabia has made it a particularly attractive destination for oil and gas exhibitions: its Middle East Oil & Gas Show & Conference in September 2011 had a record attendance, up by 14% from 2009, and it was the largest yet in terms of exhibition space. This show is only one of the eight major international oil and gas exhibitions set to run in 2012. Other events scheduled for the BIECC in 2012 include: Jewellery Arabia, a gold, jewellery, watch and clock exhibition, which attracted 550 exhibitors and 41,100 jewellery trade buyers and collectors in 2010; and the Autumn Fair, a consumer product exposition which attracted over 200,000 visitors in 2011.
Due to the popularity of the exposition traffic in Bahrain, in recent years BECA has been forced to turn away potential exhibitors for lack of space in the past. To remedy this excess of demand, BECA is looking to expand its exhibition and conference space with the construction of the Bahrain Expo City, slated to be completed in 2015. The first phase of the $385m expo@bahrain project, set to be located in Sahkir City near the Bahrain International Circuit, would increase net available exposition space to nearly 50,000 sq metres. Expanding existing exhibition and conference space is a prominent part of Economic Vision 2030.
COMPETITION: Such investments will be necessary if Bahrain wishes to remain competitive. While wise investment and natural advantages have helped it carve out an enviable niche in the MICE market, neighbours are just as avid to attract conventioneers, and Bahrain does not yet have the capacity to attract the kind of huge expos recently seen in Dubai, such as the Dubai Air Show.
With continued investment in business tourism facilities and marketing, abetted by the overall recovery of the sector, MICE tourism looks to be one of the major growth drivers in the market over the medium term.
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