Bahrain has a new tourism strategy as of 2016, together with a new tourism identity, to build greater awareness of the country as a travel destination. The strategy aims to see tourism revenue increase to $1bn annually by 2020, up from around $700m in 2015. This would almost double the contribution of the sector to GDP from about 3.6% in 2015 to 6.6% for 2020. The strategy also names specific objectives targeted for growth, including measures such as increasing the average length of stay per visitor, improving overall accessibility to the kingdom, attracting a larger number of visitors arriving by cruise liner and expanding the accommodation options available.

NEW PRIORITIES: According to the World Economic Forum’s “Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Report 2015”, Bahrain ranked 97th out of 141 countries when it came to prioritisation of travel and tourism. However, there is a renewed push to focus efforts on promoting the country as a tourism destination. The Bahrain Tourism and Exhibitions Authority (BTEA), which took over the promotion of the sector from the Bahrain Authority for Conferences and Exhibitions and the Supreme Council for Tourism in 2015, plays the leading role in promoting tourism in Bahrain.

“The BTEA has spearheaded a sea of positive changes,” Sarosh Aibara, chief operating officer at Elite Hospitality Group, told OBG. “For the first time we have a structured classification of hotels to help raise the quality of products that Bahrain offers. There is also a conscious effort to market the country overseas, as well as opening tourism offices abroad. I think efforts are on the right path and will succeed,” he said, though he added, “It can’t just be about promotion; we need more products. A lot more needs to be created to keep people staying in Bahrain longer.” The short amount of time that visitors stay in the country is also a concern of others entities. Sheikh Salman Al Khalifa, CEO of Bahrain International Circuit, told OBG. “A central goal of the new tourism strategy is to extend the length of stay, since many people only visit Bahrain for a weekend or in some cases don’t even stay the night. We’re working to make Bahrain into a better destination by creating packages for one-week stays.”

ACCESS: Bahrain’s new tourism strategy is divided into four main pillars: access, attraction, accommodation and awareness. A major part of the growth plan relies on revamping access points to the kingdom. Improvements are already under way, including the $1.1bn expansion of Bahrain International Airport, which will see its annual capacity increase from 9m passengers to 14m. Also undergoing renovations is the King Fahd Causeway, the roadway linking the kingdom with Saudi Arabia, which is expanding the number of Customs and immigration lanes from 17 to 45. The upgrades should help speed traffic flow, with additional access to checkpoints, and there are talks of the construction of a second causeway. Lastly, efforts are likely to be made on upgrading key port facilities to improve access for those arriving by yacht and cruise liner.

ATTRACTION & ACCOMMODATION: Tourism authorities in Bahrain aim to make the kingdom more attractive to visitors by developing new leisure offerings and increasing business infrastructure. One particular focus is on developing the island’s many beaches, as well as certifying 100 Bahraini tour guides to offer visitors an insider’s experience of the kingdom. The meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions segment is also being highlighted, with the planned construction of a new 40,000-sq-metre exhibition facility, which would be capable of hosting events for over 5000 people upon completion.

Despite the growth in hotel numbers in recent years, especially in the four- and five-star range, the Bahrain Economic Development Board (EDB) states there is continuing demand for hotels in this bracket, together with serviced apartments for larger families. Those involved in tourism planning have also identified a spefor leisure and business travellers. Plans to expand accommodation options have already begun, with over 10 five-star and four-star hotels under development as of June 2016, according to the EDB.

Despite this growth, Bahrain is still keen to encourage additional hotel operators to establish new facilities in order to cater to the strong demand for both sea-front hotels and more mid-range accommodation options in the three-star category. In total, new tourism projects worth close to BD2bn ($5.3bn) were in the pipeline as of September 2016, according to Sheikh Khaled bin Humood Al Khalifa, CEO of the BTEA, as Bahrain targets 15m visitors per year by 2018.

AWARENESS: The last pillar of the new tourism strategy is a concerted push to grow awareness of Bahrain as a destination of choice. While the initial focus of the BTEA was on implementing new hotel standards – to ensure that there is the right internal operational structure in place as well as quality standards – the focus has since shifted to marketing the kingdom, leading off with a new campaign.

OURS. YOURS. BAHRAIN: In April 2016 Bahrain launched its new tourism identity under the slogan “Ours. Yours. Bahrain”. The identity was unveiled at the Arabian Travel Market, held at the Dubai World Trade Centre. “The new brand embraces the country’s biggest asset, its people – their warmth and welcoming attitude,” the BETA’s Al Khalifa said at the time. “It’s the culmination of our efforts to develop an integrated strategic approach towards elevating the industry by attracting investors and providing a suitable environment to incubate tourism projects.”

Bahraini tourism authorities are now pushing the new brand and trying to incorporate it into a full marketing plan. The government is also opening seven representative offices around the world to help grow awareness of Bahrain as a travel destination. The offices are located in the GCC region, the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and India. This push to market the country overseas could have a major impact on the tourism sector, especially if the message is picked up and transmitted by the many stakeholders in the sector.

“I think the BTEA is doing great at developing the sector,” Jerad Bachar, executive director of tourism and leisure at the EDB, told OBG. “The authorities have launched the Bahrain tourism brand. They have got the messaging out there and we are already seeing private stakeholders using the branding and material as well, which is a great first step.”

In the past many other countries had a more sophisticated approach in developing diverse source market strategies, but the kingdom is now on the right track. “They have realised that we need to get into that market. Everything that is being done now has never been done before in Bahrain,” Bachar added.

BILLION-DOLLAR INDUSTRY: The strategy has a target of generating $1bn in annual revenue by 2020, which can be considered far-reaching, but those involved in the sector see the goal as achievable.

“The aim of developing tourism’s direct contribution to levels of $1bn in Bahrain’s economy by 2020 is ambitious. However, it is achievable,” Bachar told OBG. “Based on data from Bahrain’s e-government and Central Bank, as well as from the World Travel and Tourism Council, we estimate that the current direct contribution is around $700m. Over the next few years, we will see a growth in the number of resorts and hotels, an expansion of the international airport, larger aircraft for Gulf Air, and marketing activities from the BTEA. These combined activities support a strong increase in tourism’s economic advancements.”

Others also see solid growth in the near future, partly linked to government initiatives which should help to further enhance the industry. “A modest revival of oil prices and government plans to promote the country as a boutique destination is likely to boost tourist arrivals,” reported Alpen Capital in a 2016 GCC Hospitality Industry report, predicting that Bahrain’s hospitality market alone would hit $700m by 2020: an annual growth rate of roughly 7.3% between 2015 and 2020 and in line with the expected expansion in the number of hotels and serviced apartments operating in the kingdom. This will go a significant way towards meeting or even surpassing the government’s billion-dollar target, and offers opportunities for private developers to get involved.

LOOKING FORWARD: Now that the new tourism strategy is in place, the next step rests with the way in which the authorities engage with various stakeholders in the tourism sector, as well as in making sure that efforts continue beyond the short term to ensure that goals are reached and that the tourism sector is properly supported and developed over the long run.

Thus far the signs look positive, and there are likely to be strong opportunities in the near future for those already involved or interested in participating in the tourism sector. This is largely due to new projects and initiatives coming on-line, and visitor numbers increasing due to the improved connectivity of the kingdom and greater awareness of Bahrain as a place to visit.