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Thu 14 Feb 2008 04:00 AM

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Racing ahead

From the race track to the spa lounge, Bahrain's leisure industry is stepping up a gear, says Dominic Ellis.

From the race track to the spa lounge, Bahrain's leisure industry is stepping up a gear, says Dominic Ellis.

If you had stopped shoppers in London's Oxford Street five years ago and asked them about Bahrain's leisure scene, they'd have probably shaken their heads in bewilderment.

Ask them today, and there's a good chance they'll reply "Grand Prix".

We can see a real sense of progression and a shared desire to position Bahrain within the region.

Certainly the Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix - which will be held from April 4-6 this year - has put the Kingdom on the map internationally. Its leisure scene doesn't stop at the chequered flag, however.

Investment worth BHD 2.12 billion (US $5.6 billion) is now flooding into hotels, spas, theme parks and golf courses, in tandem with the billions pouring into real estate, as Bahrain seeks to establish itself up as a business-meets-lifestyle hub, much like its immediate GCC neighbours.

Tourism revenues hit BHD 6.5 million ($17.3 billion) last year, up 15% according to tourism sector department data, and while the sector contributes between 10 and 12% of GDP, the government wants it to hit 30% in 10 years.

Buoyed by record oil prices, the Bahrain economy is tipped to grow 6.5% this year, according to investment bank EFG Hermes.

Around half a million dollars is being pumped into a new hotel classification system to bring it into line with global standards, indicative of the desire among Bahrainis to position their state in a fresh international light.

Marketing, arguably one area where Bahrain has struggled to keep up with image-savvy Dubai, is gradually being bolstered with former tennis star Boris Becker signed up to promote the Riffa Views Signature Estates, which backs onto the revamped Riffa Golf Club - currently being redesigned by Colin Montgomerie.

Modern cultural attractions are on the anvil to complement the existing museums - a $40 million multi-purpose theatre, capable of seating 1000 over three levels, is due to open in 2010.

Still, there's no getting away from the pivotal position the Grand Prix enjoys on the leisure podium.

The 2006 Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix generated $394 million during the course of the race week, more than twice the amount it cost to build the circuit.

The 2008 Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix is the third race on the FIA Formula One World Championship calendar and is likely to be watched by a television audience around the world in excess of 550 million.

Bahrain has definitely stolen a march on its GCC rivals, although from next year, the motoring stakes will be raised when Abu Dhabi's Yas Island joins it on the F1 grid.

The message is clear though: the Kingdom is on the move in more ways than one.

Hotel expansion

Bahrain currently has more than 30 applications for new four-and five-star hotels lodged with the Information Ministry's Tourism Affairs Department.

The Banyan Tree Desert Spa & Resort, Al Areen opened its doors last year, reportedly the only all-villa, private pool and jet-pool resort in the region.

Other soothing touches include a spa and hydrothermal garden, three international restaurants, a ‘body wellness centre' and Banyan Tree Gallery.

Its leisure pitch is its natural serenity and proximity to the Al Areen Wildlife Park, home of the rare Arabian oryx, although you might not get much peace when the Grand Prix is on, as the circuit is only five minutes away.
Back in the city, the 16-storey Somerset Al Fateh is a new addition to the Manama skyline.

The serviced apartments target leisure vacationers although, in all probability, the wi-fi services, business centre and proximity to the central business district are likely to strike more of a chord with corporates.

Not to be outdone by Dubai, Bahrain is embarking on a $175 million indoor ski resort, due for completion in 2009.

Kempinski has a 200-room, five-star hotel coming up at Bahrain City Centre Mall, due to open early next year, complete with a 1000m² day spa, sauna and hammam, large outdoor pool and sundeck.

Ulrich Eckhardt, senior vice president Middle East & Africa, says: "Bahrain's economy is one of the fastest growing in the Gulf and its excellent infrastructure makes the country an attractive choice for the many multinational companies who have set up operations there".

However, Roland Obermeier, regional vice president sales and marketing Middle East and Africa, adds that Bahrain now needs to focus on how it promotes itself.

"In Gulf Air the country has a national carrier that still has much capacity and other direct connections are excellent, but the hotels, having already organised themselves well together with the Ministry responsible for Tourism Developments, can still increase their efforts to make Bahrain a more important player on the international tourism map."

Obermeier says the country needs more varied attractions, with Bahrain City Centre Mall a step in the right direction.

The retail, leisure and entertainment-oriented City Centre will house a large indoor, air-conditioned Water Recreation Park, a 20-screen cinema and the Magic Planet family entertainment park.

Paradisefound

The Lost Paradise of Dilmun Water Park made a splash last September as the first phase of the $1.3 billion Al Areen development.

The 77,000m² water park features water slides, the "largest wave pool in the Middle East" and interactive structures.

Drawing its theme from the ancient Dilmun civilisation - a time of abundant water, springs and shallow wells - the park is divided into six zones and features 14 slides, pools and fountains, in addition to themed food and drink outlets.

Chairman Muhannad Hamad said the water park would attract visitors from neighbouring GCC countries and abroad, and believes the Artesian Spring and sandy beach - believed to be another regional theme park first - will appeal to visitors of all ages.

The development also includes a 1000m² retail area selling branded goods and swimwear. Guests use cashless technology to purchase goods and services, with each visitor given a credit-charged wristband that can be topped up at the reload station.

Park designers have also ensured the facility is fully equipped on the health and safety front, and every drop of fresh water is recycled to World Health Organisation standards.

Health push

Bahrain's Ithmaar Bank is developing a $1.6 billion Health Island for the healthcare industry. Work is due to start soon and expected to take five years.

Hotels and apartment buildings are planned for the island, which will be located off the Kingdom's north coast. Ithmaar is also working on a $1.2 billion Bahraini beach resort and a $175 million hotel that complies with Islamic law.

On the ground, there are already signs that Bahrain is stepping up its health and well-being offering.

The Diplomat Spa, owned by National Hotels Company, a public Bahraini shareholding company, and managed by Radisson SAS Hotels & Resorts, recently opened in Manama, at a cost of $4.5 million.
The spa, next to the existing 246-room and 121-suite Diplomat Radisson SAS Hotel & Residence, contains two health clubs, a 280-metre lagoon pool, exclusive ladies spa with 11 treatment rooms, mixed spa with six treatment rooms, relaxation areas, two modern gyms, sauna facilities, three outdoor and one indoor pool for ladies, massage beds, hydro baths, steam and Swiss showers and a large fitness centre offering aerobics classes, as well as tennis and squash courts.

General manager Rick Erdos says the spa will help raise the standards of the Kingdom's wellness facilities as well as enhance Bahrain as a destination for leisure and corporate travel.

The spa team has strong Thai connections, with 20 therapists trained at Sivalai Spa, operator of the spa at the Royal Bangkok Sports club, which is owned by the Crown Property Bureau of Thailand.

Tip of the iceberg

Bahrain is not just focused on fitness, sport and spa, however, with the leisure industry set to boast a unique multi-faceted project in the not too distant future.

Not to be outdone by Dubai, Bahrain is embarking on a $175 million indoor ski resort, slated for completion in 2009.

The 1.5km ski track is earmarked for the Iceberg Tower, itself coming up on an island south of the Sheikh Hamad Bridge between Manama and Muharraq.

Alongside skiing will be ice climbing, snow boarding, ski-jumping and sledging. The project will also feature a science park, ice sculpture park, arctic zoo, mall and seaside resort.

Claudia Hardt, director of public relations & communications at The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain Hotel & Spa, believes the Kingdom is on its way to creating an overarching infrastructure and offering unique facilities and services to the leisure sector.

She says: "A lot of new projects are under development and new leisure attractions have been opened recently, such as the Lost Paradise of Dilmun Water Park".

Hardt adds that although renowned for its corporate appeal, the five-star Ritz-Carlton is now on the international leisure radar, particularly among tourists from Europe.

"It is not unusual to see families coming for 10 days to two weeks for leisure. Guests are coming for pure leisure purposes and have a high interest in everything the hotel offers from spa and water sport facilities to relaxation and pool/beach affairs.

"They enjoy restaurant visits and island tours. The biggest attractions are shopping malls, the Bahrain International Circuit, souqs and the historical sight-seeing places, " she says.

Overall, Bahrain's travel and tourism market is doing very well, maintains Hardt: "We can see a real sense of progression and a common desire to position Bahrain within the region.

"The vision is for it to become more of an exclusive boutique destination," she says."

Riffa Golf Club refurbishment underwayRiffa Golf Club is undergoing extensive redevelopment as part of the Riffa Views Signature Estates project, which will see 900 homes shoot up around its perimeter.

A new 18-hole championship golf course, designed by Colin Montgomerie, will reopen in April. It will be known as The Royal Golf Club, containing a new Golf Academy, nine-hole par 3 Academy Course for beginners and refurbished Clubhouse.

A new 250-yard range with 24 shaded bays and floodlights for night practice opened in December last year. The facility was donated by Arcapita Bank, the first step in the establishment of a Bahrain golf academy to develop the game locally.

Other developments have seen the opening of the Riffa Views Golf & Leisure Shop in the Country Mall on the Budaiya Highway, and launch of the Riffa Views' Golf Simulator which enables players to pit their skills against the lay-outs of 40 top courses.

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