Economic Update

In a bid to further incentivise growth in the tourism sector, Bahrain has unveiled a new scuba diving attraction.

Described as the world’s largest underwater theme park, Dive Bahrain was officially opened to visitors in late September.

The 100,000-sq-metre site, located off the north coast, features a series of artificial reefs and a submerged, 70-metre Boeing 747 serving as the centrepiece. Work is also under way on a series of underwater statues and a replica of a Bahraini pearl merchant’s house.

See also: The Report – Bahrain 2019

Tourism central to diversification

The project builds on efforts to broaden the country’s tourism offerings as part of a wider diversification drive.

A longstanding retail and entertainment destination for many Gulf tourists – particularly from neighbouring Saudi Arabia – in recent years the government has sought to develop the kingdom’s leisure appeal in a bid to attract a wider audience.

These efforts have included the construction of beaches and marina facilities, such as the $119m waterfront project at Muharraq in the north.

However, despite recent progress, industry figures suggest more still needs to be done.

“The most pressing need for the sector is the development of more beaches, but the Bahrain Tourism and Exhibitions Authority is actively addressing this issue for the first time, and we are expecting to see some substantial progress in the next few months and years,” Essa Faqeeh, CEO of Al Areen Investment, told OBG.

In addition, several campaigns focused on Bahrain’s culture and heritage attractions have been launched.

Positioning itself as a destination with 4000 years of authentic Arab culture, the country is home to two UNESCO World Heritage sites: Qal’at al-Bahrain, a 4300-year-old archaeological site also known as Bahrain Fort; and the Bahrain Pearling Trail, which consists of 17 buildings and three offshore oyster beds and celebrates the country’s long history of pearling.

The development of heritage, leisure and retail offerings compliments more established attractions, such as the Formula 1 Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix, which has been held annually since 2004.

“We are looking to make Bahrain a standalone tourism destination primarily for other Gulf Arabs, as well as Europeans escaping the winter months,” Amin Alarrayed, CEO of the Bahrain Real Estate Investment Company, told OBG.

Ambitious sector goals

These efforts align with government plans to increase the contribution of tourism to economic growth, as part of a transition away from an overreliance on hydrocarbons.

In April last year Ali Ghunam Murtaza, the director of real estate, tourism and leisure business development at the Bahrain Economic Development Board (EDB), announced the ambitious goal of increasing the sector’s contribution to GDP from its 2017 level of 6.3% to 20% over the longer term.

Furthermore, the EDB aims to boost annual tourist arrivals to 15m by next year, up from 12.7m in 2017.

Infrastructure drive

To support these targets, the government has allocated significant funds to the sector in recent years, with $13bn invested in tourism infrastructure projects.

The largest of these is the $1.1bn upgrade and modernisation of Bahrain International Airport, which is set to increase annual capacity from 9m to 14m upon completion next year. The project is expected to lead to a three-fold increase in direct flights to the kingdom.

Elsewhere, investment in mixed-use developments has facilitated growth in visitor numbers.

A prime example is the Bahrain Bay Development (BBD), which incorporates high-end residential real estate projects with retail and hospitality offerings.

Located on reclaimed land just to the north of the capital Manama, BBD features attractions such as the $159m The Avenues shopping centre, along with accommodation options including the 273-key Four Seasons Hotel and 263-key Wyndham Hotel.