Bahrain’s National Tourism Strategy extends from 2015 to 2018 and envisages a change of strategy for the industry. The kingdom emerged as the first shopping, leisure and service centre in the Gulf in the 1970s, and consequently began to attract high weekend traffic from across the region.
Since 2000 other regional leisure destinations have begun to mature, with Bahrain taking steps to differentiate itself, bringing events such as motorsports to the country. Under the new strategy, the authorities wish to differentiate Bahrain’s tourist offering still further. The idea is to package the island’s existing attractions to offer a range of experiences covering a variety of bases and prompting tourists to stay longer, spend more and enjoy more of what the kingdom has to offer.
Bahrain plans to make better use of its attractions, leveraging them as a peg for longer stays. Bahrain International Circuit (BIC), which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2014, hosts the Formula 1 Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix and was the venue for first Grand Prix to be held in the Middle East when it started in 2004.
Hitting The Green
On the sporting side, Bahrain has a long golfing history. The first course in the country dates back to the 1930s, when an 18-hole sand course was set up for workers by the Bahrain Petroleum Company at Awali. More recently, the Bahrain Royal Golf Club was designed by professional golfer Colin Montgomerie, and the main course covers 7102 yards, 72 par, with 18 holes. The club also has a three-par, nine-hole course, managed by Troon Golf. Another course is planned as part of the $6bn Durrat Bahrain development, which will feature 18 holes and design input from South African golfer Ernie Els.
In 2011 Bahrain hosted the World Volvo Golf Championship, and in January 2014 the Bahrain Volvo World Golf Challenge was launched. The 2015 Volvo championship in Bahrain took place over several dates throughout the year.
In terms of other sports, Bahrain hosted the International Basketball Federation Asia Championship in 2013. In the same year, the country hosted the Gulf Cup of Nations multi-sport tournament, attracting over 300,000 spectators. In December 2014 Bahrain held a half-Ironman triathlon, which involved a 1.9-km swim, a 90-km bike ride and a 21-km run, with prize money of $500,000. Building on this success, a second Iron-man race was held in December 2015, and the Bahrain Ironman 70.3 race is scheduled for 2016.
Since 2005 Bahrain has hosted an annual “Spring of Culture” festival. This extends over several weeks, and brings together exhibitions, concerts, poetry recitals, lectures and workshops. It is an opportunity to showcase homegrown talent, but also attracts acts from across the Arab world, drawing visitors far and wide. Manama has acted as a “cultural capital” on several occasions; it was the Arab Capital of Culture in 2013 and the Capital of Asian Tourism in 2014. The 2014 event involved a “Year of the Arts” component, and parallel exhibitions by several Asian countries, many of whom have many expatriates in Bahrain.
The tourism promotion authorities in Bahrain aim to use events such as these to boost tourist numbers and enhance the overall visitor experience. This applies to both organised packages and the independent travellers who they hope can be persuaded to stay a few more days. Bahrain is a small country that nevertheless offers a broad variety of sights and activities, and the intention is to persuade people to remain and sample these after having attended a big event.
One of the less utilised assets of the country is the Hawar Islands, some 25 km from the main archipelago, and a prime site for ecotourism. The islands, hitherto largely undeveloped, are a major site for birds and wildlife. In 2014 the government designated the Northern Heyrat Preserve, a 1350-km nature reserve, and declared its aim to make the Hawar Islands a rival to the Maldives as an ecotourism and diving site. This will require sensitive development of the islands and well-trained staff. On the plus side, Bahrain already has its own hospitality school, the Bahrain Institute of Hospitality and Retail, so this merely requires refocusing the training, and there is time to develop such courses and train a cadre of staff.
Additionally, Bahrain is home to a rising number of resorts focused on spa and wellness treatments. These include the Sofitel Zallaq Hotel and Spa, a five-star establishment featuring 262 bedrooms, a thalassotherapy centre and a private beach, and the Al Areen Palace and Spa resort, which offers accommodation in over 70 villas and a variety of spa and wellness treatments. Investment bank Alpen Capital put the value of the global health and wellness tourism at $100bn, projected to reach $1trn within a decade, and the Bahrain government is looking to promote closer coordination so such resorts can work with other attractions to provide packages and tailored experiences. If wellness retreats are linked to Bahrain’s famed winter sun, they can help to attract visitors looking to escape the harsh winters of northern Europe.
Although not a direct or typical leisure experience, health tourism also has the potential to be a lucrative niche for Bahrain. The country has a good health care system and counts 16 private hospitals. Furthermore, Bahrain offers much lower health care and procedure costs than the rest of the Gulf, with a comparable skill level among medical personnel, making it a good potential base for health tourism, particularly non-urgent procedures such as cosmetic surgery. Alpen forecasts the health care services market in the GCC to be worth almost $70bn by 2018.
Bahrain is currently planning a $1.6bn integrated health and medical care resort, Dilmunia. A mixed-use development built and masterplanned by Ithmaar Development Company, Dilmunia is an artificial island covering 125 ha of reclaimed land, with 17% of its area dedicated to health facilities. The site features three hotels, which will offer Thai massage, Chinese alternative medicine and hydrotherapy treatments, while the centrepiece is the Dilmunia Health Island, a 165,000-sq-metre concentration of specialist treatment centres offering preventative, curative and rehabilitative services, focusing on chronic conditions, aesthetic procedures and alternative remedies healing practices.
Bahrain is also seeking to attract the family segment. Arab culture is family-oriented, and the island’s hotels and restaurants are well equipped when it comes to hosting families. The island has several attractions aimed at children. The Lost Paradise of Dilmun water park is the largest in the Middle East, and opened in 2007 with investment of $50m by Al Areen Holding Company. It covers 77,000 sq metres and can cater for up to 5000 visitors. Following US group Avenue Ventures’ taking a 35% stake in the firm, in May 2014 expansion plans for both the water park and the Al Areen Spa were announced, introducing a new interactive educational component. Children are also well catered for at Bahrain’s many malls. City Centre Mall offers karting, a water park and fairground, while Seef Mall is home to Magic Island, an indoor theme park covering over 4300 sq metres, with over 20 rides and 150 video games.
Bahrain has attractions to suit a broad range of tastes, including cultural and leisure offerings, a variety of cuisines and a diverse natural environment. The result is a destination with potential to attract visitors from across the Gulf and beyond.