By Ali Khaled
The new GM of the hotel says there is more to discover in the island kingdom than just fast cars
For three days each year, the eyes of the world turn to Bahrain’s capital, Manama, as the Formula 1 Grand Prix circus rolls into town. This April was no different, as the 13th edition saw Sebastian Vettel beat Lewis Hamilton to lead the driver standings after three rounds.
It is by some distance the busiest time of the year for Bahrain’s hotels and tourism in general, and one new resident sees it as the perfect base on which to grow the hospitality industry in the future.
“It was a super event because we had quite a lot of important people here, which is always good to see because there seems to be a lot of interest in the F1 in Bahrain,” says Jean-Paul Dantil, the new general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Bahrain. “Mr Bernie Ecclestone was here, there’s a fantastic atmosphere in town, the restaurants and hotels are bustling. There’s a mix of different types of people, from sports journalists, to drivers, team owners and team managers, a very good and important time for Bahrain. My other hotels were also full which is great to see.”
While celebrities, Formula 1 fans and tourists have been increasingly flocking to the event since 2004, Dantil, who is German-Argentinian, says that the Bahrain Grand Prix retains a relaxed atmosphere that other host cities would struggle to match.
“The GP here is very special,” Dantil says. “There’s quite a lot of space. A lot of the other Grand Prix [cities] are very crowded, there’s a lot of traffic. Here it’s very easy, our hotel is 20 minutes from the race course. There’s space, there’s feeling of fluidity, it’s a very friendly place as well.”
With the contract for the Bahrain Grand Prix set to be extended, the spotlight on the country every April looks set to continue. But while the three-day extravaganza has given Bahrain a great opportunity to showcase its growing hospitality industry, Dantil believes that affordability in comparison to neighbouring destinations has been a major factor in the rise of tourists.
For example, a three-bedroom villa with a private pool at the Ritz-Carlton in Manama can be enjoyed for rates that would get you a suite in a five-star hotel in Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Doha.
Dantil, who moved to Bahrain after a stint at Ritz-Carlton Vienna, sees positive signs for the hospitality industry in Bahrain, thanks to the desire to “sell the destination” by the country’s leaders.
“I’m very happy to see the country investing a lot in tourism,” Dantil says. “Hospitality here has been a bit slower, obviously we have the big brother Dubai right on our doorstep and there’s Qatar as well. We have a lot to grow yet, there’s no doubt about it, but we have great cities around us which we can learn from and take their best practices to this lovely island.”
One understated aspect of Bahraini tourism according to Dantil is the burgeoning culinary scene, and it’s not just within luxury hotels that it thriving.
“There’s a great culinary side as well, it’s not as developed as Dubai, where every brand is there, but it is slowly coming here, it’s [more] organic,” he says. “We also have fantastic farmers’ markets here on Saturday, with local Bahraini farmers bringing their produce to them. It’s a pleasure to be able to go to a market like this and buy your own vegetables. We have a lovely ocean as well, we have villas that look directly onto the beach in the city.”
It’s this homey vibe and accessibility that is attracting many tourists according to Dantil. Another factor is the involvement of so many Bahraini nationals in the hospitality industry, something that has been encouraged by Sheikh Khalid Bin Humood Al Khalifa, the CEO of Bahrain Tourism and Exhibitions Authority (BTEA).
The royal has a very hands-on approach to promoting the country and, according to Dantil, particularly when it comes to culture and art.
“We have to create stories and experiences here. I’ve only been here three months, but speaking to the [leadership] you can see there’s great push for this,” he says. “We’ve had a big increase in German tourists coming to our properties and the feedback is incredible. It’s a little bit undiscovered. A lot of people in Dubai haven’t been here yet. Of course for us Saudi is a very important market, and will remain so.”
So is Bahrain the Gulf’s untapped tourism market? Dantil is happy to admit so much of the country remains undiscovered by visitors.
“I like to say it’s like a flower that starting to bloom,” Dantil says. “I know it had a few difficult years, but it seems to be coming out of it stronger and better, and we’re surrounded by some fantastic places, so we can learn and complement each other, as each Gulf state offers something a little different. Bahrain has a 3,000-year history, you could say it’s one of the oldest civilisations here in the Gulf. There’s a fort, the pearl diving history is still evident here and what’s nice is you look outside and you still see the Bahraini fishermen getting the catch of the day. You can walk on the beach and see the boats coming in, and I think the people like to see that side of Bahrain.”