Bahrain’s tourism industry is on track to post its strongest result ever in 2018, with growth in arrival numbers coinciding with the rollout of new products and the targeting of new markets.
The country had 5.9m visitors in the first half of the year, a 5.4% year-on-year increase, according to data released by the Bahrain Tourism and Exhibitions Authority (BTEA) in early September.
The result continued the strong trend of rising arrivals; last year Bahrain welcomed 12.7m tourists, according to the BTEA, up on the 10.2m and 9.7m inbound visitors in 2016 and 2015, respectively. This year, the authorities are hoping to attract 15.2m.
While arrivals as a whole were up, inbound traffic at Manama’s Bahrain International Airport was down 7.5% year-on-year at 570,000 passengers. Daily visitor expenditure experienced a similar decline, with average spend falling marginally from BD77 ($204.8) to BD76 ($202.1). However, overall income was notably 28.7% higher due to the overall rise in tourist traffic and the increased number of overnight stays.
Saudi visitors remain a top contributor to tourism revenue
The majority of arrivals in the first half of 2018 came from Bahrain’s traditional source market: Saudi Arabia. The number of visitors using the King Fahd Causeway – the bridge linking the two countries – totalled 5.29m, up 8% on the 4.9m recorded in the first half of 2017.
These arrivals are important for the sector, given that the average daily spend by Saudi visitors – at BD83 ($221) – is higher than the industry average of BD76 ($202).
The kingdom’s recent decision to allow Saudi women to drive vehicles has the potential to spur further visits, as it could result in more families crossing the causeway in the future.
China identified as key tourism target market
While Saudi Arabia will continue to be the leading source market, the industry is looking to broaden its base, with China identified as having strong growth potential.
The Chinese tourism market is forecast to expand significantly in the coming years, according to a report issued by business consultancy Colliers International, with annual outbound traffic predicted to rise from 154m this year to 244m in 2022.
Chinese arrivals to the GCC – which currently account for 1.9% of Chinese outbound travel – are expected to increase by 21% to 2.5m by 2021, according to Colliers.
While Saudi Arabia is forecast to see the strongest jump in arrival numbers by 2021, with a projected 36% rise on 2016 figures due to an increase in pilgrimages by Chinese Muslims, Bahrain is expected to benefit from a 7% increase in inbound traffic over the period.
In anticipation of this increase, Bahrain became the first GCC country to offer visas on arrival for Chinese tourists in 2014 – a move being followed by other countries in the Gulf seeking to tap into this expanding market.
Bahrain’s push to carve out a niche among Chinese visitors was supported by the 2015 development of the $100m Dragon City Mall, a Chinese-themed retail, wholesale, leisure and hospitality centre that also acts as gateway for Chinese entrepreneurs and importers looking to enter the region.
Hotel capacity and infrastructure expanded to meet growing demand
With the projected influx of Chinese and other visitors leading the BTEA to aim for a long-term target of 20m arrivals per annum, investments in hotels and hospitality services are on the rise.
More than 5000 hotel rooms, mainly in the four- and five-star range, are set to be added to the country’s existing stock of 17,000 by 2022 as part of a $10bn upgrade, according to property consultancy CBRE.
The drive to expand accommodation stock is being support by ongoing investment in family-oriented tourism facilities.
This includes the rollout of a series of waterfront projects with public and private beach developments, which, on top of being located near existing or planned hotels and resorts, are looking to promote water sports such as parasailing and boating.
One such development is a $119m project at Muharraq, to be completed by the end of next year, which will include the construction of a public waterfront, along with a mix of food and beverage outlets, car parks and marina-related businesses.