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Sun 15 Feb 2009 04:00 AM

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Pearl of the Gulf

Bahrain is gearing up for several years of growth, with an influx of new hotels and infrastructure projects to stimulate its diverse tourist markets. Laura Warne investigates.

Bahrain is gearing up for several years of growth, with an influx of new hotels and infrastructure projects to stimulate its diverse tourist markets. Laura Warne investigates.

The tiny nation of Bahrain is in a state of great change; simultaneously holding on to its historical roots through restoration projects while forging ahead with cutting-edge architecture to house multinational head quarters.

Bahrain is an archipelago of 33 islands, but the majority of these are uninhabited. The largest island, featuring the capital of Manama, is 48km long and 16km wide.

Until 1932, Bahrain's biggest claim to fame was arguably its lucrative pearl diving industry. In June of 1932, it became the first Gulf state to discover oil (albeit a modest quantity compared to its neighbours).

The proceeds of this discovery were put towards the development of several industries, including processing, transportation and later international banking.

The country is now recognised worldwide as a hub for financial business, attracting many multinational companies and giving rise to the popular tourism catchphrase "Business Friendly Bahrain".

Bahrain is party to bilateral trade agreements with 43 countries, including China, India, Singapore and the UK, as well as a free trade agreement with the United States and membership in the Arab Free Trade Zone.

The country is particularly proud of its thoughtful and measured rate of growth, compared to some of its glamourous neighbours, however a raft of new projects and developments may threaten Bahrain's current ‘slow and steady' philosophy.

The upcoming Bahrain Bay project promises to bring a renewed vigour to the business sector, as well as some healthy new competition for the city's tried and tested hotels.

Shopping facilities in Bahrain can hold their own with the rest of the region, with the new City Centre Mall boasting 350 stores and the largest indoor water park in the Middle East.

While clean, sandy beaches are currently in short supply, the government of Bahrain is dedicated to developing the country's 161km of coastline. Cultural projects are also underway; fuelling the country's bid to become a UNESCO Arab World Culture Capital.

One clear advantage that Bahrain holds, according to Banyan Tree Al Areen general manager Sami Ayari, is its strong local workforce - many Bahrainis are employed in the country's hotels, restaurants and travel agencies.

However, Ayari admits that while the country is a popular destination for GCC tourists, the challenge for the hospitality industry lies in attracting a broader client base.

"Travellers outside the GCC won't necessarily look at Bahrain as a destination," he explains.

"It's not a beach destination, although the government is working on developing beaches. Similarly, it's not a shopping destination - we have all the shopping you could need, but people won't fly in to Bahrain to shop like they would in Dubai or Singapore.

"The biggest opportunity in Bahrain is to enhance the cultural heritage - it's all there, it just needs to be made more tourist-friendly for travellers from overseas."

Ayari admits to a certain hesitance when it comes to the rising tide of development in Bahrain.

He is adamant that the country must strive to retain its unique charm in the face of progress.

"Bahrain is a diamond in the rough - my only hope is that it will be carefully cut," he explains.

Local market

The Banyan Tree Al Areen is the company's first venture outside of Southeast Asia and Ayari says it was "an adventure to export this philosophy to the Middle East".

He explains that destination spa resorts are not common in the region. However, although the Southeast Asian and European markets may be considered more spa-savvy by some, Ayari says the property's main market is GCC based, with residents of Bahrain making up the majority of guests.

The all-villa resort's devotion to privacy is a key factor in its popularity with Gulf visitors, according to Ayari.

"The best compliment I've ever received was from a businessman from Kuwait," he explains.

"He told me that he had travelled all around the world and stayed in top hotels, but he said ‘this is the first time I've gone on holiday and actually spent time with my family. We stayed in the villa, we went swimming together, we ate together and we relaxed together'."

Despite the global economic downturn, Ayrai says bookings have actually grown for the hotel since October 2008.

He explains that unlike most properties in Bahrain, Banyan Tree is not a business hotel and is therefore less affected by fluctuations in the market. By catering to high-net-worth individuals, the hotel is somewhat insulated.As Ayari states, in an economic downturn, "the wealthy may become just a little less wealthy, but that won't stop them travelling".

Indeed, in times of high stress, he says guests are even more likely to embark on a detox or spa break.

"Many are looking for a quick-fix to keep them going - they can come here and decompress over a couple of days," he says.

After the core GCC market, Ayari says his top clients are from England, Germany and Switzerland.

And although the property is not marketed as a business hotel, Banyan Tree Al Areen attracts a large amount of MICE business, with conference facilities for 300 people and a separate entrance for business guests.

Ayari says guests, both business and leisure, are also attracted to local activities at the Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) - known as the "home of motorsports in the Middle East". In addition to hosting the V8 supercars and Formula One, BIC is home to the only Hummer Academy located outside the United States.

BIC also offers a range of meeting and function spaces for corporate events and incentives. The Al Sakhir Tower caters to corporate, private, social and cultural events, with each floor of the tower featuring hospitality lounges.

The Oasis Complex is a stand-alone group of 12 hospitality lounges that are regularly used for meetings, conferences, events and product launches.

In addition to the Hummer Academy, there are a range of other on- and off-road activities for team-building events and incentives.

Friendship bridges

Bahrain's close relationship with Saudi Arabia was cemented with the King Fahad Causeway; a 25km series of bridges linking the two countries, broken up by several islands where tourists can dine with a unique view of both nations.

The causeway has led to a high number of weekend and short break tourists from Saudi Arabia, which some industry sources admit can cause headaches and put a strain on the country's infrastructure.

Regardless, a second "friendship bridge" is underway to join Bahrain with Qatar. Construction was scheduled to begin in January 2009, but has been slightly delayed while the final costs are recalculated in line with current global market trends.

The Bahrain-Qatar causeway is expected to be completed in 2013 and will be the world's largest marine bridge, spanning more than 40km. The project will also include freight and passenger rail lines, with the potential to expand the rail services north to Turkey and south to Oman in the future.

BahrainBay

Bahrain Bay is an upcoming mixed-use development situated near the Bahrain World Trade Centre and diplomatic area. The project will be anchored by a Four Seasons hotel tower offering 220 rooms, scheduled to open to guests in 2010. Bahrain Bay's principal shareholder Arcapita, the Bahrain-based international investment bank, is due to complete its corporate headquarters in 2009, which will include 18,000m² of office space.

In addition, CapitaLand is developing Raffles City in Bahrain Bay; a unique 45,000m² residential and retail development that is due for phased completion in 2010.

The project is expected to be completed in 2012, although public elements such as waterfronts, boulevards, landscaping, parks and roads will be completed by late 2009 and early 2010, according to Bahrain Bay CEO Bob Vincent.

Restored houses

Sheikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa is the driving force behind the transformation of one of Bahrain's neighbourhoods.

Residential houses are being restored to their traditional glory and the project is expected to contribute to the country's bid to become a UNESCO Arab World Culture Capital.

Sheikha Mai holds a masters degree in political history and is Bahrain's current minister for culture and information.

The buildings included in the restoration project include museums, libraries and a coffee house. They are expected to generate more culture-based tourism in Bahrain. Crunch

According to several industry sources, Bahrain's market remains considerably strong in the face of the current global economic downturn.

As a primarily business-focused market, continued strength in corporate travel numbers is crucial to the success of the hospitality industry in Bahrain. However, confidence abounds among many hoteliers, including Ritz-Carlton Bahrain's general manager Bernard N Viola.

"We refuse to participate in the credit crisis or any global recession; we refuse to have any part in it," says Viola with certainty.

The Ritz-Carlton is one of the country's premier hotels, boasting 245 rooms and suites and 23 private beach villas.

In a controversial move, the hotel launched a ‘smoke-free' policy in January 2009, making all restaurant venues and public areas non-smoking zones. Staff members admit there have been mixed responses to the policy, with some less-than-enthusiastic guests.

However, the hotel stands by its policy and has received positive responses from families, F&B staff and other guests.

"The genuine care and comfort of our guests is our highest mission and creating a smoke-free environment demonstrates a new level of service and care for them," says Viola.

Ritz-Carlton Bahrain is also in the process of several upgrades, including an ambitious new plan to expand the hotel's spa facilities.

Incoming spa manager Lulu Katrivesis, who joins the hotel from Mövenpick's Dead Sea property, has high hopes for the spa.

"I'm hoping to achieve quite a lot here," she explains.

"It's hard in a way, because it is running very well and I don't have to worry about that aspect at all, but we do want to move forward. We want a new vision and a new concept that people can see when they walk in the door."

She insists that despite the difficult financial climate, hotel management is supportive in developing the hotel's facilities in preparation for more prosperous times ahead.

Assistant spa manager Andrea Rollins says the hotel has recently seen a significant shift in the spa habits of clients.

"Here at the Bahrain property we were doing a lot of holistic care, but we have moved into more of a medi-spa model with microdermabrasion and other services," Rollins explains.

"People are looking for results, focusing on anti-aging and you have to be prepared to give more when it comes to cellulite treatments and endermology - anything that can keep a person looking as young as possible and their skin as healthy as possible."

The hotel also runs a health club, including gymnasium facilities, swimming pools and access to the property's hammam and one of the island's few private beaches.

However, due to overwhelming popularity, the hotel is not taking any new members for the foreseeable future.

Future

Undoubtedly the Bahrain of 2013 will be vastly different to the current island nation, which has managed to maintain its calm environment despite playing host to global business leaders in some of the world's fastest-paced industries.

The challenge ahead is clearly to continue this measured growth with a focus on ensuring infrastructure will support the new developments and increased tourism numbers.

Cultural development is of great importance to many Bahrainis and expats working in the hospitality industry. The desire to celebrate the country's history, from pearl diving to architecture, is evident.

Many in the hospitality industry hope that retaining this history and fostering a new market of cultural tourism will lead to an increase in leisure tourism and open the country to a greater number of international guests.

At a time of such growth, the opportunities are numerous for hoteliers looking to capture one or all of the markets Bahrain attracts: well-established business travellers; frequent regional tourists; or the emerging international leisure tourist market.

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