Gulf’s main crossroads for over 4.000 years, Bahrain was recently appointed as the “Capital of Tourism in the GCC”
What is the growing significance of tourism sector in Bahrain?
Bahrain has been one of the Gulf’s most important commercial crossroads for over 4,000 years. With this history, the Kingdom has also become a hotspot for tourists. Being geographically well positioned we have always attracted leisure and business visitors from all over the world, however not enough was done to compete regionally with our neighbours. Under the Vision 2030, the tourism sector is a key pillar to achieve true economic diversification, and in 2015 with the Royal Decree number 76 issued by His Royal Highness King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the Bahrain Tourism and Exhibitions Authority was established with a main objective to revamp Bahrain’s tourism offering, where our strategic goals are:
In order to achieve our strategic goals, we had to ask ourselves why would someone want to visit Bahrain. Here, we joined our efforts with the Central Information Organization surveying visitors coming through the Saudi – Bahrain Causeway and also the Airport, and created a strategy that will focus on four A’s – accessibility, attractions, accommodation and awareness.
Visiting Bahrain is convenient, and not simply due to our strategic central Gulf location but also because the Kingdom has committed to significant investments such as the Airport expansion, a second Causeway linking to Saudi Arabia and new terminal plans for Cruise Ships. This means we can offer exceptional connectivity and infrastructure. The flight time to GCC countries is less than an hour. Over 300 million people are within two hours’ travel.
As a first step to make Bahrain more accessible, we have reduced visa costs by 80%, reducing it to 5BD (Bahraini Dinar) from the initial 25 BD. We have also introduced e-Visa, where you can receive your visa prior to your arrival. Secondly we are at work with our infrastructure with major revamps and new plans on the board.
We already have a large offering for our visitors where the modern meets an old culture. For history lovers, there is the rich heritage of ancient civilizations, which date back to over 5,000 years, with many temples and burial mounds to explore. And for modern dwellers, Manama is the perfect spot, with Bahrain International Circuit where you can watch F1 racing, Durrat Al Bahrain islands for a relaxing rest by the water, thriving shopping centres such as the new Dragon City mall and many more attractions. However, we are continuously working with many private and public partners to expand our product offerings, ranging from a beach holidays to extreme sports.
We are also working to diversify to subsectors in tourism. We are glad to confirm a new international cruise company will be arriving for the first time to Bahrain in December (With almost 3,500 passengers). Also, we joined cruise Arabia, a company that promotes the GCC as a cruise ship destination, so we are exposing ourselves out there and positioning Bahrain according to our offerings. For this season, we are expecting around 65,000 passengers from the cruise ships alone, which is the highest ever recorded. In fact, there are conversations around building a cruise terminal in the future.
We recorded a total of 11.6 million visitors in 2015 and are targeting to attract 15.8 million visitors to the kingdom by 2018, an increase of 36.2 per cent. The kingdom has also witnessed a steady rise in hotel occupancy rates, which were at 45 per cent in 2013, before slowly climbing up to 50 per cent in 2014 and reaching 52 per cent in 2015. We had to look at what are tourist references so we can provide the right information to developers and hoteliers in order to create a unique offering for our visitors. We also had to go back to a lot of hotels and start new inspections so the minimum standards are met, and not a single customer is left disappointed. With the current technology capabilities, we have the ability to collect data on customer satisfaction and put the right recommendation for the hoteliers so not only customer service but also product offering is improved.
Bahrain has a number of unique offerings for tourists, however from our research we have found out that the majority of tour operators around the world did not have enough information or packages to push holidaymakers to visit the Island. Thus, we have strategized two-fold in order to increase awareness. We introduced a new identity, “Ours, Your, Bahrain” that aims to promote the country across the globe and also opened seven representative offices across the globe, London, Germany, China, France, India, Russia and GCC to showcase our credentials as the perfect holiday destination.
As you have stated Bahrain Tourism and Exhibitions Authority (BETA) has revealed its exciting new brand identity recently, not only showcasing it in the region but also in London very recently at World Travel Market (WTM) in London. Which are the fundamentals behind the new brand identity, and how will it help you shape and diversify arrival numbers?
We developed this brand in collaboration with the Economic Development Board (EDB) because once you have a solid brand for the country, you can attract tourists and also investors. The ‘Ours. Yours. Bahrain’ slogan embraces the country’s biggest asset, its people – their warmth and welcoming attitude. Before starting international promotion, presenting and having the local community understand what Bahrain’s new identity stands for was very crucial for us. That is why we launched it here first in the Kingdom; locals got to see it, understand it, digest the messages that the brand should have and unify the concept for all our tour operators here.
We did that in April, through a press conference where we explained to the whole tourism community what the brand was and how to best embrace it. Afterwards, we were able to take this new brand regionally and internationally where we showcased it in London very recently. The new identity and strategy will showcase to our local, regional and international partners what Bahrain is capable of in terms of attracting new visitors and how we can work together to make this sector an integral part of our economy.
So, once we have clarity on the brand fundamentals, we have to adapt to the different type of visitors. As you can imagine a European tourist is going to have different needs to our regional visitors. So, we have just opened seven offices around the world, in: UK, Germany, France, India, Russia and China, and an office in Saudi Arabia to cover the GCC. The idea behind these offices is that each representative will be responsible for communicating our product to tour operators in those countries. Once they communicate our product, they will have to promote it; we have a marketing budget in place per country to help them with different marketing activities in each territory. The idea is that foreign tour operators will put together packages and update their catalogues with our offers, so once visitors arrive the Destinations Management Companies (DMC) in Bahrain will meet and receive these travellers ensuring they experience the real Bahrain. The DMCs are vital because the experience comes through them.
In summary, we were able to put together a brand focusing on the authenticity of the country and the hospitality & warmth of the people of Bahrain. That was the idea behind the brand and that is why the tagline is ‘Ours, Yours, Bahrain’.
How is the new brand identity aligned with the government’s vision to attract foreign investment?
One of the main targets of establishing a tourism brand was to attract FDI. It’s a combined effort to attract tourism and investors alike. It goes hand in hand when you are talking about promoting the country to investors and tourists. We needed to have a strong brand identity that everyone can recognise and be present when EDB for example is touring around the world trying to raise awareness on Bahrain. It was created so our partners can utilise it, in order to attract investors not only to the tourism sector but also to other sectors. It will give a new visibility to the country internationally and regionally.
What role is technology playing in order to boost tourist arrivals?
Innovation and technology plays a key role in our tourism development. We have full digital and data team, giving access to information in real time about occupancy, nationality of visitors, attractions proffered etc. We have software where we can process all the data and connect it to see how this contributes to the economy. Before it would have taken us some tome to gather information about how many people are visiting the country, now I can get it in three seconds. We can compare volume of visitors per seasons, and then strategize about what action needs to be taken. There is another technology we have in place that analyses all the social media contents. So, for example it will take 140 websites and look at all of the comments that talk about Bahrain, our hotels, attractions, etc. Then the system creates a report where we can identify what needs to be changed or communicated to our partners.
It’s true that Bahrain is rolling high with cultural celebrations, the brand launch, Manama being named Gulf Capital of Tourism 2016, however the Kingdom faced turbulent times in 2011 where tourism arrivals was affected. How did this affect Bahrain’s Brand identity internationally and how will the new ‘Ours, Yours, Bahrain’ identity change perceptions?
We were affected for a very short period of time, and if you look at the 2012 GCC football tournament that was held in Bahrain, we exceeded our expectations with a high number of arrivals. The 2011 events only affected our sector for a short period of time, today we have more tourists arriving. And if you look at the cruise ships, there are more visitors if you compare to 2010; we are in a much better position. In fact, over the last three years we have achieved a record number in our tourism expansion as well as a record in income for the sector.
Looking at travellers’ trends, one can find that UK visitors make their decisions around one key topic; safety. In fact, numbers reveal that in 2015 and 2016, the majority of UK travellers visited Mediterranean countries and the main reason behind it was because of that perception that it is a safer destination. How are you ensuring that Bahrain is a safe destination for regional and international tourists?
For us safety is a given. We are one of the safest countries in the GCC to visit, where crime numbers are at their lowest, and every tourist is a guest from God. More than any other economic activity, the success or failure of a tourism destination depends on being able to provide a safe and secure environment for visitors. As I mentioned before, Bahrain’s enviable perception as being relatively safe is among its major assets as a tourist destination. It is a factor that has served us well over the last 3 years and is expected to remain with us in the future. However, BTEA, our partners internationally and our newly opened offices around the world are there if any question arises and we can assure that Bahrain is safe and open for everyone.
What is your final message to anyone who is considering visiting Bahrain?
Bahrain was appointed the Capital for Tourism in the GCC for 2016, becoming the first country in the gulf to get that title, and there is a reason why we were chosen first to represent and carry this flagship among our neighbours. And now to make it more accessible for people planning to visit us, we have launched 5 new e-services, making access to our Kingdom easier and a touch away from your finger. We are continuously working to improve the quality of the services provided, upgrading our product offering and also hard infrastructure to make your stay as enjoyable as possible.
If you want to experience truly ancient culture that meets the modern, you have to visit Bahrain.