Interview: Sheikh Khaled bin Humood Al Khalifa

What is being done to cultivate more destinations and activities across Bahrain?

SHEIKH KHALED BIN HUMOOD AL KHALIFA: The BTEA has designed a strategy called the “Four As”: accessibility, attractions, accommodation and awareness. To increase accessibility, we have looked at our target markets and are working to improve accessibility for each one. Our main target market is the GCC, with more than 20m outbound travellers per year. Because of its proximity to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain is a natural destination for Saudis, who make up 59% of all visitors. As a result, one of our main priorities is to ease the traffic congestion on King Fahd Causeway, which has an increasing transit of 9.6m visitors per year. Other target markets include India and China, representing 17% of our tourism, and then Europe and Russia. The expansion of Bahrain International Airport and the plan to revamp Khalifa Bin Salman Port to provide better cruise ship infrastructure are key tools to better promote our niche markets. The goal is to increase the number of visitors to 15.2m by 2018.

In terms of attractions, our island nation boasts an attractive lifestyle, a rich history and a welcoming culture. Meanwhile, more international exhibitions and regional events, a new exhibition centre, developed beaches and islands, and other entertainment facilities are all in the pipeline. Accommodation for visitors remains a priority; 17,000 hotel rooms existed as of 2015, but by 2018 we should have 20,000. The average length of stay at all hotels in Bahrain has increased at a compound annual growth rate of 7%, to reach 2.5 days. We have identified the need for 4-star seafront hotels and hotel apartments, so we are encouraging and licensing such projects.

The fourth aspect of our strategy is awareness. Marketing and promotion are essential components in the tourism industry, so the BTEA launched Bahrain’s official brand in early 2016 to promote the country in terms of tourism and foreign direct investment. A tourism brand enables packaging itineraries and promotion internationally via TV, newspapers or social media. We launched our brand campaign in April 2016. The idea behind the “Ours. Yours.” concept is that Bahrain is known for being hospitable and friendly, and now we are promoting it through our new representative offices in seven different countries, with the main task of increasing inbound tourism in collaboration with international tour operators.

How can Bahrain differentiate itself from other regional destinations in attracting families?

AL KHALIFA: We have several factors that make Bahrain unique, including its position as the only island nation in the Middle East. We are planning the development of eight coastline, beach and island projects by 2018, including family beaches. Moreover, we are working with other governmental institutions to regulate new water sports and other activities attractive to families that can only be found on an island.

What actions are being taken to try to increase tourism’s direct contribution to GDP?

AL KHALIFA: We have reasons to be optimistic about tourist expenditure. Bahrain’s tourism sector is one the highest direct contributors to GDP in the Gulf region at 4.6% in 2015. However, we are more ambitious and have an objective of reaching 6.6% by 2018. To achieve this result, we have a strategy of converting visitors into tourists, and increasing the average length of stay by offering more attractions and more attractive packages. There are important ongoing development projects where tourists could spend more time, such as The Avenues, Bahrain Marina and Diyar Al Muharraq from Marassi beach to Dragon City. We have also decreased visa fees from BD25 ($66.31) to BD5 ($13.26) to be more competitive in the region. In the same way, we are facilitating entrance from our target markets, for example by being one of the few countries in the region to provide visas on arrival to Chinese citizens.