Bahrain is confident it can attract 14 million visitors annually by 2026 as it almost doubles its tourism sector's contribution to economic output to 11.4 per cent.
The kingdom's accelerated tourism push will build on previous achievements, in tandem with plans to build up its business events sector, while boosting growth from markets such as India, China and the US, Zayed Alzayani, Minister of Industry, Commerce and Tourism, told The National on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos.
“We did it in the first strategy from 2015 to 2019. We went from 3.4 per cent to 6.9 per cent [contribution to GDP],” Mr Alzayani said.
“Most of it had to do with awareness. A strategy, which was awareness, attractions, access and accommodation.”
The strategy was aimed at low hanging fruit and “putting Bahrain on the map”.
“We picked eight markets. UK was one. We picked them because they are big source markets, and there is direct connectivity to Bahrain,” said Mr Alzayani, who is also chairman of national airline Gulf Air.
“For example, we surveyed France, 153 travel agencies, some of the multi-branches. None of them had any material about Bahrain and Gulf Air has been flying to Paris since 1976.”
“We went from nine million tourists [a year] to almost 12 [million], 11.8. So, now we are going to 14 million.”
In the latest push to hit 14 million by 2026, the campaign has been expanded to 19 markets, he said.
“Between the first and the second [campaign], we reduced the awareness, went more on tactical,” he said. “So, we expanded the footprint to 19 markets. We brought in Gulf Air as a strategic partner. So, the growth of the Gulf Air network is synchronised with the source markets we feel are important for Bahrain.”
Events, including regular fixtures such as the Formula One GP or the IISS Manama Dialogue, are part of the marketing strategy for attracting visitors but there will also be an emphasis on business conferences and meetings.
A new exhibition and convention centre, called Exhibition World Bahrain, is expected to be ready n November.
“It will be one of the largest in the area. Top five in the world. We have 100,000 square metres of exhibition space, 40,000 square metres of convention space [and a] 4,000 seat auditorium,” Mr Alzayani said.
“It will help Bahrain on the business tourism side, the Mice [meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions]. And that is good for us on two folds; it supports the tourism sector. They are heavy spenders, they stay for long periods.”
Mr Alzayani said it would create business opportunities for joint ventures and foreign direct investment into Bahrain “when you bring all these big conventions and all these people from around the world. We are confident we will hit the 14 [million target]".
“We are pitching for events that would go to Las Vegas or Hong Kong or Shanghai, because what we have is much bigger than Dubai or Doha. The capacity that I discussed with you doesn't exist in the Gulf,” he said.
“We have reformed a lot of our visa processes to make it easier to access Bahrain. We are creating more tourism content in Bahrain, whether it is on infrastructure or the private sector, investing in F&B [food and beverage] outlets and activities. We have even invested in a tour guide programme with the World Travel and Tourism Organisation, to create the proper image and presentation of Bahrain.”
Greater investment in Gulf Air will also be key, he said.
“We are investing in our airline, not just in the hardware and the new planes which we have coming up to 2026. We have a new airport. And in the last two years, Gulf Air has gone from a three star to a five-star airline,” said Mr Alzayani.
“So, within the Covid [period], we have worked a lot on the quality and the efficiency of the airline to upgrade it to an international standard. India is a huge market for us. It is also a growth opportunity for us. China is a market we are yet to open up,” he said.
“And this is where I say Gulf Air synchronises with the tourism because we are planning to launch a route to China from Bahrain. We don't have direct connectivity yet. Another destination would be the US. So, we are hopeful to get the route set up by the beginning of next year.”
Risks that could have an impact include a resurgence of Covid-19, as well as competition from other markets.
“I think we did very well during Covid-19. It gave us more of a story to tell. We never had to shut down. We never shut our airport. We never stopped our airline, we never closed our borders. We never had curfews,” said Mr Alzayani.
“Covid-19 was probably my proudest moment of being a government official … the way everybody worked together, not just government, private citizens, expatriates; the whole nation really came together to face one threat. And everybody played their part, volunteers, police medical staff, everybody,” he said.
Oil prices above $100 a barrel help Bahrain in terms of its fiscal position but will not affect its economic diversification plans, Mr Alzayani said.
“We should always be growth-driven. And, you know, when [the] growth [target] is met, we shouldn't stop, you should double down,” he said. “And that is the only sustainable way to go forward. It won't last forever. We won't have oil prices where they are.”
Ultimately, the ambition is for Bahrain to be a “hub of excellence”.
“The biggest challenge for Bahrain is to change the mindset from thinking locally to thinking globally,” he said. “We are very small geographically. And the only way to achieve huge success is to think how to set up to be global from day one.”