(CNN) – Bahrain has long relied on its fossil fuel reserves, but with oil running out, the island nation is looking to diversify its economy. Now, it’s hoping a $427 million waterfront development project will help it catch up with more popular tourist destinations in the Gulf and establish the country as a beach-holiday hotspot.
The development will bring new beaches, floating restaurants, luxury hotels, and water-based attractions to Bahrain’s coastline, as well as a $221 million exhibition center that’s set to be the largest in the Middle East.
The Bahrain Tourism and Exhibitions Authority (BTEA) began the beachfront development master plan in 2017 and the development is due to be completed in 2026, with three quarters of the projects to be unveiled before the end of this year.
Island waterfront identity
Bahrain is an archipelago of 33 natural islands trimmed with white sand, off the Arabian Peninsula. Pre-pandemic, it received 4.3 million annual tourists, with neighboring countries Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) attracting around 15 million each. In 2019, the Bahraini tourism sector grew 6.8 percent, and the industry jumped from accounting for just 2.4 percent of Bahrain’s GDP in 2015 up to 7 percent at the end of 2021, according to the BTEA — which hopes to see that number rise to more than 11 percent by the time these new projects are completed.
Nasser Qaedi, CEO of the BTEA, says Bahrain has capitalized on the tourism lull created by global Covid-19 travel restrictions by using this time to implement tourism infrastructure projects.
Bahrain’s development plan, shown in this rendering, will bring new public and private beaches, luxury hotels, and floating restaurants to the island nation’s coastline.
The developments currently underway consist of three large-scale projects: the Galali waterfront project, the Bahrain Bay project, and the construction of the new Bahrain Exhibition Center in Sakhir, which will have a footprint of over 300,000 square meters.
The plans represent a push towards positioning the country as a beach destination. “We’re the only island state in the Middle East,” says Qaedi. “That island waterfront identity is very critical to our value as a tourism destination.”
Record-breaking exhibition center
While Bahrain has long been a popular destination for tourists from the Gulf, it is facing challenges. According to Magdalena Karolak, associate professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at a University in the UAE, Bahrain’s tourist industry is still recovering from the combined effects of the Covid pandemic, and competition from neighboring Saudi Arabia, which is linked to Bahrain by the King Fahd causeway.
“In Bahrain in 2020, tourism arrivals were down by 92 percent as compared to 2019,” says Karolak.
“Saudi Arabia in 2019 started a campaign that definitely will affect Bahrain. They started to focus on opening up all sorts of entertainment, such as cinemas, shopping malls, resorts,” she says. Karolak adds that many Saudis who had in the past traveled to Bahrain for the weekend to take advantage of more relaxed social codes were now choosing to stay at home.
Another challenge, according to Karolak, is that “there is very little access to beaches. On the main islands, the beaches are either built up or they’re private.” The development could go some way to addressing that, as the Galali waterfront and Bahrain Bay projects alone will introduce more than 2.6 kilometers of beach to the coast.
Other Gulf nations are making new efforts to attract tourists. In the UAE, Dubai is coming to the end of it six-month Expo, which has drawn millions of visitors; Qatar will host the football World Cup later this year; and Kuwait last year announced it would use an additional 250 million Kuwaiti Dinar ($820 million) in funding to re-develop 11 tourism projects.
Karolak believes that Bahrain’s exhibition center will be an asset to the entire Gulf, by attracting tourists to the region. “When this exhibition center is operational, I’m sure it will be something that all the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) countries, especially Saudi Arabia, would also use and promote,” she says.
Qaedi is hopeful that the developments will offer benefits to Bahrain on both a micro and macro scale, drawing global financial interest to the region and stimulating local economies with job creation and investment in local infrastructure.
“These developments are going to be game changers for the country,” Qaedi tells CNN. “We have a holistic vision — it’s not just about the individual projects, we are linking them all together, creating a multibillion-dollar vision towards a tourism industry that will become a key attraction for anyone visiting the region.”