Interview: Sheikh Khaled bin Humood Al Khalifa

What must be done to fulfil Economic Vision 2030’s aims for tourism, which highlight the role of the sector in attracting foreign direct investment (FDI)?

SHEIKH KHALED BIN HUMOOD AL KHALIFA: Tourism has grown into one of the fundamental pillars of Bahrain’s national economy in recent years, and has taken a prime role as a vital contributor to the country’s balance of payments and to macroeconomic stability, as well as a creator of new jobs, both directly and indirectly. For instance, total inbound tourism expenditure increased by 8.9% to BD1.6bn ($4.2bn) in 2017, resulting in a non-oil GDP contribution of 6.8% for the sector that year.

On the other hand, awareness is a key pillar of our strategy at the BTEA. Marketing and promotion are essential components in the tourism industry. The BTEA and the Economic Development Board launched Bahrain’s official tourism brand “Ours. Yours. Bahrain” to promote the country in terms of tourism and FDI.

The tourism brand supported the launch of the BTEA’s representative offices across the world based on our target markets (Saudi Arabia, the UK, France, Germany, India, China and Russia). The main task of these representative offices is to increase inbound tourism in collaboration with international tour operators. Our targets and key performance indicators for the representative offices will result in a significant increase in visitor numbers and hotel occupancy, as well as in the daily average tourist spend.

Bahrain is also seeking to reinforce its position as a meetings, incentives, conventions and events (MICE) destination, and hosts major events, exhibitions and trade events during the year. The BTEA has launched a tender to build a new exhibition and convention centre to be fully established by 2020. The exhibition centre will have 10 halls covering an area of 120,000 sq metres of floor space. In addition, the convention centre will have 30,000 sq metres of useable floor space, with a grand hall that has a capacity of 4000 seats. The BTEA believes that with such an establishment we will be able to further develop the MICE sector and increase the average hotel occupancy rates in hotels.

How can Bahrain compete as a destination in the region while maintaining its cultural authenticity?

SHEIKH KHALED: The BTEA is now responsible for reviving the old Manama Souq, one of the oldest souqs in the Gulf, which we believe will have a tremendous effect on Bahrain’s heritage tourism offerings. Total arrivals to the Kingdom of Bahrain increased by 11.9% in 2017 to a total of 11.4m visitors, and we believe that the country’s cultural authenticity is a very attractive factor for visitors, especially given that Bahrain is home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites.

The BTEA has focused on promoting the country’s cultural identity and history through a series of events and festivals such as Hurafuna and the Sea Festival, which enabled tourists to engage directly with Bahrain’s rich history and traditions. These events have attracted thousands of visitors from neighbouring GCC countries, the MENA and beyond. Until today, Bahrain’s history, people, fascinating culture and heritage differentiates it from any other country across the region.

How can the sector meet the demands that an eventual 20m annual visitors will place on it?

SHEIKH KHALED: The BTEA has drawn up a long-term strategy that focuses on four pillars: awareness, attraction, access and accommodation. The first step is to further develop tourism infrastructure and increase accessibility by upgrading the kingdom’s access points for foreign visitors, including by expanding Bahrain International Airport and improving port facilities for yachts and cruise ships, as well as the King Fahd Causeway. Other goals include attracting exhibitions and conferences to the kingdom, and improving the quality of services in the tourism and hospitality sectors. Doing all this will strengthen Bahrain’s position as an ideal destination for families and international tourists.