Driving business

There is no doubting the fact that the Formula One Grand Prix has accelerated Bahrain’s tourism development, but now the kingdom is taking the wheel and steering its own course to success

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By  Sarah Campbell Published  May 8, 2006

|~|grand-prixL.jpg|~|The Formula One Grand Prix has helped put Bahrain back on the map.|~|Bahrain was once the tourism hub of the Middle East, and in fact played host to the region’s first Arabian Travel Market back in 1993. However, the fast track development of Dubai in recent years left the kingdom staring at the emirate’s tail lights, as Dubai outpaced the archipelago in the tourism race. Now, Bahrain is hitting the accelerator and looks set to go full speed ahead to bring its tourism industry back into the race, and driving its business forward is the Bahrain Formula One. The premier sporting event has helped put Bahrain back on the tourism map, as racing fans the world over make a bee-line for Bahrain in early spring. This year’s event, which took place March 10-12, provided the double whammy of also being the first Grand Prix in this year’s racing calendar, and not only got the likes of Schumacher and Montoya off to a flying start, but also kick-started the country’s tourism industry for 2006. “Business has been extremely good for The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain Hotel & Spa in the first quarter of 2006. In fact, the hotel did its best month ever in March, in terms of revenue and RevPar, since it opened back in January 2003. This is attributed largely to the Formula One Grand Prix event, as well as several large conferences that the hotel hosted during the month,” says Pascal Duchauffour, general manager, The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain Hotel & Spa. The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain re-opened in November last year, following an extensive six-month renovation programme that saw rooms and suites closed completely. A brave decision by GM, Duchauffour, but one that has definitely paid off, as the hotel has witnessed its highest room rates and occupancies ever, since the re-opening. “The renovation has been a big factor in attracting the GCC and European markets as it showcases our newly refurbished product, and in some cases, larger rooms and suites. The upgraded Ritz-Carlton Club Lounge is also a big draw for corporate clients and luxury travellers who are willing to pay more for better quality products and services,” admits the hotel’s director of sales and marketing, Kenneth Hill. “Business has grown compared to the first quarter last year with over 4500 additional room nights sold during the first three months of this year,” Hill adds. Rumour has it that Ritz-Carlton is so pleased with the results from this property that a second Bahrain hotel is on the cards for the luxury operator. New hotels New hotels, and new tourism and property developments, appear to abound in Bahrain at the moment. Scandinavian operator, Rezidor, is following its regional expansion plans with the introduction of its high-end brand, Regent, into the Bahrain market later this year. The Diplomat Residences at the Diplomat hotel in Bahrain will feature 121 furnished, full-service apartments. Meanwhile, Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, now owned by Saudi Arabia’s Prince Al Waleed, has discussions underway for management contracts in Beirut, Doha and Bahrain. Regional hotel chain, Rotana Hotels is preparing to operate its first property in Bahrain, located close to the gate of Bahrain in central Manama. Expected to open in mid 2008, Bahrain Rotana Hotel will have 300-rooms and suites, a number of restaurants, meeting space and leisure facilities. “Business in Bahrain tailed off when Dubai came up. Now, with the development of the financial centre, it has created more interest,” says Daniel Hajjar, senior vice president, sales and marketing, Rotana Hotels. “For us, it is important for the owner to get a return on investment. The hotel will certainly add value to the brand.” Marriott International aims to fly the flag for its Renaissance hotel brand with the opening of the Renaissance Bahrain Amwaj Islands Hotel in 2008. Part of the US $1 billion Amwaj Islands development, the 323-room hotel is being developed in association with Ossis Property Developers, owners of the Amwaj project. The Amwaj Islands mixed use development will offer residences, offices, a shopping mall, entertainment island, additional hotels and a 140-berth marina. The Renaissance hotel will open in 2008 as part of the project’s second phase. The hotel will boast 323 sea-facing rooms on seven floors, five restaurants and a 1500m² conference centre. “The style and design of the hotel is perfect for the Renaissance brand. Renaissance Hotels are positioned as ‘consistently unique hotels, where new impressions and novel experiences unfold in every detail’,” says Jeff Strachan, area director of sales & marketing for Marriott International. “The Renaissance brand is also focused on the enjoyment of the guest and suits a resort property very well. This hotel will be our second new build Renaissance in the Middle East and Africa after our Sharm El Sheikh Resort, which is performing extremely well,” he adds. Italian hotel chain, Domina Hotel Group and Al Hamad Construction & Development Co. announced plans to build the Domina Bahrain Hotel & Towers, in mid November. Scheduled to open in March 2007, and managed by Domina Hotel Group, the hotel marks the entry of the brand into Bahrain and its continued expansion in the Middle East. Domina Bahrain Hotel & Towers will feature 340 rooms, including two presidential suites and villas, three restaurants, two bars, a spa and leisure facilities, in addition to banquet and conference facilities. “Bahrain is known as the Pearl of the Arabian Gulf, one of the most attractive destinations in the Middle East,” says Francesco Borrello, CEO, Domina Hotel Group. “To open a Domina property in such a beautiful destination certainly enhances the brand and we are particularly proud to add this new hotel to our portfolio,” he added. In addition, Dubai International Properties (DIP) has unveiled plans to build a US $544 million beach resort and spa in Bahrain. The resort will be located on Bahrain’s southwest side. It will sprawl over a 500,000m2 site and will include a five-star hotel, traditional souq, hotel villas and spa, marina and wellness centre. The project is set to be completed in March 2009. However, the first of these new kids on the block to open will be the Banyan Tree Desert Spa and Resort, Al Areen, the only all-villa private pool resort in the Arabian Gulf. The resort, set to open in July, is part of the Al Areen Desert Spa and Resort, a mixed use tourism, leisure and residential developments currently under development 25-minutes drive from the city centre of Manama and 35-minute drives from the Bahrain International Airport. When completed, the resort will have four major components — the spa resort, themed hotels, a residential village and an aqua park. It will be located behind the Al-Areen Wildlife Sanctuary and adjacent to the Bahrain International Circuit. Solid links With all these new resorts coming on line, Bahrain is currently making moves to improve its tourism infrastructure. First up is the expansion of the Bahrain International Airport. A $100 million expansion project will raise the annual capacity of the airport to 12/15 million passengers per year from its present level of 10 million. However, a full three-phase project is predicted to raise this figure to 45 million per year. Phase one of the project includes expanding the eastern side of the terminal by 40,000m2 and adding eight more air bridges, which will raise the total number to 15. Two of the new positions will be designed to hold the super jumbo A380, and they will be served by dedicated holding lounges and double-decked air bridges. The latest figures show that the airport handled 3,111,578 passengers in the first seven months of 2005, a 6.8% increase on the same period in 2004. The airport showed even stronger growth in the 12 months ending July 31, 2005, with passenger numbers climbing 10.7% to 5,341,519. Further growth is expected from the general economic boom in the region, and from the fact that Gulf Air is likely to shift more services to Bahrain following Abu Dhabi’s pull-out from the carrier. Gulf Air is also expanding its reach. The airline has entered into new code sharing agreements with Saudi Arabian Airlines, Philippine Airlines, Biman Bangladesh, and currently it has over 12 codeshare agreements with well known airlines. “The MENASA region is a key focus for Gulf Air with a network that connects to Europe, UK, Africa, Indian Sub Continent, the Far East and Australia. With the biggest network in the Middle East, Gulf Air provides more flights and non-stop services within the MENASA region than any other airline. Gulf Air also provides services to over 45 destinations worldwide including the two recent additions of Dublin and Johannesburg,” says a Gulf Air spokesperson. Gulf Air has also extended its title sponsorship for the prestigious Formula 1 Bahrain Grand Prix until 2010, following an agreement with Allsport management. Additional infrastructure developments include the much talked about Friendship Bridge, set to link Bahrain to Qatar. The foundation stone for the $1.8 billion Bahrain-Qatar Friendship Causeway will be laid at the beginning of next year. The 40km double-lane causeway is expected to take four years and nine months to complete. It will start at Askar village, continue along Bahrain’s eastern coastline and end at Ras Ashiraj in Qatar. Consolidating business With all this development taking place, existing hotels are racing against time to complete renovation projects and upgrade facilities in a bid to stay in the race. Sheraton Bahrain Hotel & Towers is undergoing an extensive renovation programme in readiness for joining the Kingdom’s newest development — the Bahrain World Trade Centre. Located on the Bahrain Commercial Complex (BCC) site, and adjacent to the Sheraton Hotel in the heart of Manama, construction is underway for a new landmark office and retail development to be branded and operated as the Bahrain World Trade Centre (BWTC). Completion is planned for this summer. Sheraton Bahrain Hotel & Towers, which will form a component of the BWTC, will undergo an extensive facelift, to provide catering and conference facilities, along with leisure and fine dining amenities. “Obviously we are very excited to be part of this development and the vast opportunities it entails,” says Christopher Chan-Piu, area director, sales & marketing for Starwood Hotels & Resorts, Gulf, CIS and Levant. According to Abdulnabi Shakeeb, director of sales at the hotel, the main market for this property is the MICE one, and this new development will provide a vital component in targeting this sector. Also targeting the MICE market, the Crowne Plaza Bahrain has recently opened its purpose-built conference, meeting, exhibition and banqueting facility, with a capacity to host conferences of up to 1700 delegates in either classroom-style configuration, a sit-down banquet for 1200 guests or a cocktail reception for 2000 guests. The hotel also has individually appointed meeting rooms catering up to 60 persons. The five-star property has also recently opened its newly-refurbished Crowne Plaza Club Rooms and suites. “Our Crowne Plaza Club Rooms have been redesigned to suit corporate and leisure travellers who are looking for something different and interesting,” says George Koumendakos, the general manager of the hotel. Meanwhile, Mövenpick Hotel Bahrain has just opened its grand ballroom. The hotel, which has been in operation since January 15, 2005, is the first hotel in Muharraq and lies directly opposite the Bahrain International airport. “The new grand ballroom will attract the MICE market and also be ideal for weddings and banquets,” says director of sales, Hussain Ali. The Mövenpick client profile is divided up into 60% business and 40% leisure. “Our main target market in the Middle East, for business tourism, is Saudi Arabia, especially the Eastern province and Riyadh. For leisure tourism they are Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Dubai,” says Ali. The hotel has seen a 12% rise in business so far this year, compared to the same period last year, and Ali is confident the hotel, and Bahrain in general, will continue to attract a large number of business clientele. “The tilt is definitely towards business tourism. Currently the client profile seems to have remained unchanged. It’s only during the Formula One and Jewellery Arabia that we find the balance tilting in favour of leisure tourism. In fact, the Bahrain Financial Harbour project and the World Trade Centre are future developments that will reiterate Bahrain’s position as the business hub of the Middle East,” he says. It seems Bahrain offers something for everyone, and this diversity appears to be setting the kingdom on track for further tourism success.||**||

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