‘The Grand Prix is central to the kingdom’s tourism development strategy,’ says Dalia Amasheh, tourism project manager at the Economic Development Board (EDB). ‘It has a lot of potential and we can build around it. But we need to study it well to see how it can be marketed and how it can be linked with the development of other activities.’

Tourism is one of six key sectors being targeted by the EDB for development. ‘Tourism is already an important contributor to the Bahrain economy, but the sector is very underdeveloped,’ she says. ‘We have archaeological, cultural and environmental attractions, but we are not using them. We have a very high potential for growth because we are starting from a low level.’

Tourism represents about 4 per cent of Bahrain’s gross domestic product (GDP) and is growing at some 5.4 per cent a year, in line with the overall economy. The sector employs about 10 per cent of the country’s workforce, equivalent to 28,500 people. However, the majority of these are expatriates – about 73 per cent of those in the hotel industry, for example.

Bahrain’s tourism sector also has some significant structural weaknesses demanding attention. It is heavily skewed towards a particular market – short-stay visitors from Saudi Arabia. About 80 per cent of all travellers to Bahrain arrive across the King Fahd Causeway from Saudi Arabia, either on business trips or for weekend breaks to enjoy Bahrain’s more liberal atmosphere. Almost 40 per cent of all visitors are day-trippers, whose average spending is low.

And although there has been significant investment in tourism-related projects, these have so far been uncoordinated. ‘We have to diversify and reduce dependence on a single market,’ says Amasheh. ‘We particularly want to target the Saudi family market and also expatriates who are living elsewhere in the region.’

Amasheh’s immediate challenge is to produce a tourism masterplan setting out how Bahrain should position itself as a tourism centre and providing a framework for developing that position. The plan, which is currently being prepared by International Development Ireland, will be completed in the summer. A second element of her brief is to establish the Tourism Development Board, a new body which will be responsible for delivering on the masterplan’s aims. Legislation to establish the new entity is before parliament.

‘So far we have not had good land planning and zoning,’ says Amasheh. ‘The sector masterplan will provide a physical plan. What we will do is create geographic clusters connected by corridors of attractions, such as archaeological sites. For example, we will have a cluster of resorts along the beaches of Al-Jazair in the southwest, close to the Bahrain International Circuit [BIC] at Sakhir.’

Selling points

Amasheh believes that Bahrain has several significant advantages over its Gulf neighbours. Anyone visiting the kingdom is quickly made aware of the island’s 5,000 years of continuous inhabitation, and while archaeological sites are unlikely to be enough to draw people to the kingdom, they are a strong attraction once a visitor is in the country. Similarly, she says Manama’s old town area has the potential to be regenerated into a magnet for tourists, featuring restaurants, cafes and galleries. Plans to redevelop the main souk are already in train. The Hawar islands to the south offer a unique ecological site, although any development would have to be extremely sensitive to avoid destroyin