The smallest of the Arab states has long been admired for its stunning coastline, its wealth of culture and history and its Arabic hospitality. But now a host of incredible new developments are making the Kingdom of Bahrain a destination to be reckoned with.
The Kingdom of Bahrain is often thought of in context of its size: the modest little island nestled between its considerably larger neighbours Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Although the country is often praised for its paradise-like beauty, you could be forgiven for underestimating the impact this tiny island could have on the tourism industry.
But now the smallest Arab state is aiming high - and with good reason. Investors are flocking to the Kingdom, and as a result, its travel and tourism market is booming.
By 2014, the Kingdom hopes its tourism market will generate around 10% of the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and, according to World Travel Council figures, Bahrain's tourism revenue is expected to reach US $10 billion by 2017.
This is an area of the Gulf that will see radical change over the next few years.
Following on from the country's existing connection with Saudi Arabia via the King Fahd Causeway, construction will shortly begin on a bridge to connect Bahrain and Qatar via the Qatar-Bahrain Friendship Bridge.
At 45km, the long-awaited bridge will be the world's longest fixed link, and a natural extension of the King Fahd Causeway.
This will open up the area for even more visitors to wonder at the country's attractions, such as the Durrat Al Bahrain, a string of artificial islands in a necklace formation, currently under construction off the south coast.
Offering residential, commercial and resort elements including a championship golf course designed by Ernie Els and a 400-berth marina, the project is Bahrain's largest luxury mixed-use development.
Another coming attraction is the multi-million dollar indoor ski resort Iceberg Tower, offering skiing, snow-boarding, sledging and ice climbing.
The project, scheduled for completion in 2009, will also include a convention hall, ice sculpture park, arctic zoo, shopping mall and seaside resort.
Already up-and-running is the Al Areen development, an impressive two million square metre project located in the southern region of Bahrain, next to Al Areen Wildlife Sanctuary and Bahrain International Circuit.
The development comprises villas, apartments, a shopping mall and hotels, including a Banyan Tree property.
Banyan Tree Desert Spa and Resort, Al Areen director of sales and marketing Waike Papke believes the Bahrain tourism market is one to watch.
"As seen in most of the other Middle Eastern countries, travel and tourism plays an increasing role in the Kingdom of Bahrain."
"The Ministry of Tourism is constantly improving its support towards the local tourism industry - participating in all major exhibitions, simplifying visa regulations and creating an improved infrastructure to attract more travellers year on year," she explains.
"The number of leisure travellers has increased consistantly over the past years, with visitors coming to Bahrain to enjoy a relaxed weekend, experience the country's historical sites or simply take the family to the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) or Lost Paradise of Dilmun (LPOD), Al Areen's new water park," Papke adds.
"Most of Bahrain's visitors are from the neighbouring GCC countries, but an increasing interest for the destination can be seen, especially from the European and Asian markets."
Sim Leisure Consultants director and LPOD general manager Paul Blunt says: "It is definitely growing and developing."
"Even in the two years I have been here I have seen a lot of ongoing work - hotels that have been re-vamped, destinations re-launched and I think with the water park and the many developments due for completion in the next two to five years, Bahrain will soon be a lot more than a stopover destination for international tourists."
Al Areen is not the only area benefiting from the country's tourism focus.
The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain Hotel and Spa area vice president and general manager Pascal Duchauffour says: "The travel and tourism market is doing very well."
"We can see a real sense of progression and a common desire to position Bahrain within the region. The general vision is to become more of an exclusive boutique destination."
The country's self-promotion is certainly drawing interest, as Emirates' senior vice president, commercial operations, Gulf, Middle East and Iran Nabil Sultan notes.
"Tourism in Bahrain is a thriving industry. The government has set an ambitious goal of doubling the current tourism revenues, reported to have exceeded US$1 billion in 2006, and of increasing the tourism industry's contribution to GDP from the current 6% to 10% by 2014. A recent increase in the number of inbound arrivals is proof that the plan is well underway," he says.
The credit for the Kingdom's rocketing appeal is down to a whole range of factors.
Banyan Tree's Papke explains: "Bahrain values its long and rich history that goes back to 3000BC and has preserved many archaeological sites, such as the Bahrain Fort, the Old Village of Saar and the Barbar Temple."
"The Bahrain Museum offers visitors a first overview about the country's heritage and history and is popular with locals, expatriates, regional and international guests."
"[The country] also enjoys an excellent reputation in the Middle East and among the international travel community."
"Along with major property developments, new attractions and additional shopping experiences, Bahrain puts an increased focus on cultural tourism by introducing new sites and consistently supporting tour operator programs," Papke says.
Ritz-Carlton's Duchauffour believes that much of the credit must go to Bahrain's inhabitants.
"The uniqueness of Bahrain is its people," he says. "They are very proud of their country and have a true sense of hospitality."
"It is part of their history as a trade centre and a central platform for years. The country represents a fascinating blend of traditional Arab and western cultures and welcomes visitors from all over the world," he explains.
LPOD's Blunt agrees that the sense of tradition and local flavour is a prime draw.
"[Bahrain offers] a relaxed and gentle Arab experience without the city bustle of our famous neighbour. There's guaranteed great weather, great hotels, restaurants and bars. The F1 - the buzz that time of year is just great - and of course the best water park experience!"
The hugely successful Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) has certainly made a big impact in the region, as Emirates' Sultan points out.
"Currently, one of the biggest annual draws for Bahrain's tourism industry is the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix. The majority of tourist arrivals are from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, while arrivals from other GCC countries are also significant."
BIC chief operating officer Shaikh Salman bin Isa Al Khalifa corroborates this. "With the bulk of visitors coming from the GCC and Middle East region, there is a consistent flow throughout the year."
"On a monthly basis, the circuit has seen more than 2,000 people visiting to take a tour of the place and find out more about the races hosted at the venue," he says.
However, as Sultan points out, BIC is not the primary attaraction for everyone.
"Most Americans and Europeans who visit Bahrain do so for business reasons. The country is working towards having more American and European tourists and has recently started promoting niche segments such as sports tourism, cultural tourism, and MICE (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions) tourism," he says.
Currently, the most frequented routes into the country are from the GCC countries, Europe and North America.
"Emirates operates 21 flights a week between Dubai and Bahrain, and most of our flights operate at high load factors of over 80%," reveals Sultan.
Without a doubt, Bahrain as a destination is appealing to a wider audience than ever before.
LPOD's Blunt says that every nationality is a marketing target. "We are a venue that offers entertainment for literally all age groups and demographics; we offer something for everyone."
"Obviously at these early stages whilst we are encouraging all tourists and locals alike, our focus has been on our neighbours in the GCC as the causeway gives these visitors easy access all year round," he says.
"At these stages, most of our visitors have been from the GCC - in particular Saudi Arabia."
Ritz-Carlton has always targeted the traditional GCC market, but is now also concentrating on Europe and Asia, as Ritz-Carlton's Duchauffour explains.
"Corporate and business travellers are very strong current markets for us. The international leisure client has been a strong focus and we have seen incredible responses from our European partners. It is not unusual to see families coming for 10 days to two weeks for leisure."
This combination of luxury developments and leisure attractions has ushered in more visitors than ever before, making 2007 an impressively successful year.
Ritz-Carlton's Duchauffour says: "Last year was an outstanding year for The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain and the outlook for this year looks very promising too. We have seen outstanding responses from the market to our new product since our full renovation.
"Business has also seen an increased demand from leisure and business travellers focusing on high quality products, personalised and tailor-made services and attention to details."
LPOD's Blunt says business has been "exceptional" for Al Areen's water park since their opening last year.
"We opened later than anticipated and so had a very short operating season in the first year of only three months, and this also included the month of Ramadan which is always a quiet time."
"Given these factors, the crowds of over 75,000 people that visited us in that time were a really encouraging result - the first weekend's trade of more than 10,000 visitors blew us away."
"We are now closed for winter and are looking forward to opening in March/April with warmer weather for an even better result this year."
Blunt believes the park's overall impact on Bahrain's tourism industry has been significant.
"We have given all visitors a reason to stay longer, and hopefully will encourage some that have never been to Bahrain before to come and see us."
"As more tourists come and then stay longer, hotels will benefit, as will restaurants and eventually more facilities and venues will open to cater to the increased and longer-lasting visits."
"To this end we will be working heavily with local hotels and tour operators to offer guests as much value and convenience as possible when visiting us," he says.
And of course the internationally renowned BIC has gone from strength to strength since its opening.
BIC's Shaikh Salman confirms: "The BIC saw a very successful year for business in 2007 as it hit all-new highs in terms of the record numbers of visitors making their way to the circuit."
"This year, as we prepare to celebrate our fifth F1 anniversary, we have high hopes and judging by the exponential growth rates since we started it is going to be even better."
"Having held two international racing events - the Formula One Grand Prix and the Australian V8 Supercars Championship - the circuit has generated approximately US $548 million, which has benefited both the BIC and the Kingdom."
There are some huge projects in the pipeline for the next few years, and this attitude of national promotion and expansion seems to have galvanised the entire Kingdom, as Ritz-Carlton's Duchauffour explains.
"We are currently promoting our villas, where we offer the exclusivity and privacy guests are looking for with the service of a butler to cater to any special needs and requirements," he says.
Despite only being open a few months, Al Areen's LPOD also has ambitious plans for 2008, as Sim and LPOD's Blunt reveals. "We want to grow our potential as an events venue for group outings, product launches, corporate events and so on."
Supporting the growth
Of course, such large-scale development and expansion will undoubtedly need significant support if it is to maintain growth and standards.
Banyan Tree's Papke says: "The Ministry of Information (Tourism Sector) has launched a number of projects and activities to support the tourism development in Bahrain. Continued support and follow-up from the government will increase the chances of success and guarantee growing numbers of tourists.
"With a functioning tourism infra-structure, the development of online media opportunities and website improvements, the implementation of advertising campaigns and the advancement of the current trade-show concept, Bahrain will certainly see an increased interest and attract a larger number of international visitors over the coming years."
Ritz-Carlton's Duchauffour is similarly optimistic. "Bahrain is on a successful way to create an overarching infrastructure and to offer unique facilities and services to the business and the leisure sector in the future. Once the vision is clear and established, it is crucial to communicate to all and ensure everyone is embracing it," he says.
As LPOD's Blunt points out, it's a matter of promoting the whole range of facilities and attractions on offer.
"To me [Bahrain] is the Middle East experience, and there is an ambience that the island has that even the fastest development can't obscure," he says.