Two news stories in particular caught my attention in recent days: The first was the fantastic news that Muharraq had been recognised as the Arab world’s capital of Islamic culture. The second was a more disappointing report about the very low number of Bahrainis employed in the tourism sector.
With Manama recognised in the past couple of years as the Arab capital of culture and capital of tourism, this proves how much we have to offer as a tourism centre for the Arab world. The rest of the world is also beginning to realise our kingdom’s immense tourism potential, with the Grand Prix being a huge draw. The fact that multiple expat surveys keep scoring Bahrain as the best place in the world to live also shows that when the world discovers Bahrain, they quickly fall in love with the friendly and beautiful culture of these islands.
Despite all this, and despite massive investment in Bahrain’s tourism infrastructure, such as the airport expansion – we are only just scratching the surface of Bahrain’s potential. We can do much more to make our coastlines more tourist-friendly, we should be promoting ourselves better overseas, and we could be doing more to make the most of the kingdom’s natural assets – historic forts, desert wildlife, traditional crafts and fishing ports.
Compared with other GCC destinations, like Dubai and Doha; Bahrain blends traditional Arab culture with modern amenities. It is this authentic heritage which has seen us recognised again and again. The Muharraq coastline project inaugurated by the Prime Minister right next to my office, looks set to be an exciting development, pointing the way for how Bahrain tourism potential can continue to grow and become a major source of income for us all.
Despite tourism being a massive future source of wealth for Bahrain, it was recently reported that the hospitality sector workforce was made up of less than 10 per cent Bahrainis. Before our esteemed MPs rush to pass legislation demanding 50pc Bahrainisation for all hotels and tourism resorts, we need to understand the problem.
The Bahrain Hospitality Institute has become a primary institution for helping us professionalise the domain of tourism and hospitality. It can accept 400 students, yet its current intake is a horrifying 180 students. Whereas many university courses are heavily oversubscribed and intense competition results in only the best gaining entry; tourism courses can’t even fill half their places, and thus inevitably become a dumping ground for students who can’t access more prestigious subjects.
This is an awful situation to be in. Having been on the receiving end as a tourism employer, I’ve frequently interviewed tourism graduates who have little interest or affinity for employment in this area. Working in tourism requires passion, enthusiasm and imagination.
In fact, tourism is arguably one of the most fun and rewarding domains to have a career in, as well as being a massive area of expansion and growth.
We are slowly edging away from the depressing mentality where everyone wanted a safe but soul-destroying career in a government department. I meet so many young Bahrainis these days who want a career in IT, business, private medicine, marketing and telecommunications. Yet we desperately need more Bahrainis who recognise the potential of making a career in hospitality and tourism.
For those who do move in this direction, the opportunities for career development are immense because this is an area of such rapid expansion. You may begin your career serving in a restaurant, taking bookings in a hotel or troubleshooting at a beach resort; but for those who pay their dues and work their way up, the path is open to be running the entire resort and managing its future growth; or using your experience to become an entrepreneur and establish a new generation of hospitality amenities.
Bahrain is lucky to have a leadership who recognises and nurtures our tourism potential and who is investing heavily in growing this domain. Commerce and Tourism Minister Zayed Al Zayani has been an important pioneer in expanding this sector. We are also indebted to Shaika Mai bin Mohammed Al Khalifa for doing so much to unleash Bahrain’s cultural potential. It is largely thanks to her that Bahrain has been put on the map as a centre for Arab heritage.
In the era of globalisation, each nation must have a clear-eyed recognition of the natural assets upon which its future wealth will be underpinned. Once this was a pearling nation; yet as the pearling industry collapsed in the early Twentieth century, God blessed Bahrain with the opportunity to base an immense programme of national development upon oil. As the door closes on the age of oil, we must once again use our imagination and God-given natural assets to recognise where our future wealth and national competitive edge will come from.
There are manifold reasons why Bahrain’s leaders have identified tourism and hospitality as central pillars of Bahrain’s future wealth. They are absolutely right in setting this agenda, given everything Bahrain has to offer. Bahrain has the natural resources; now we need the best of our human resources to invest their creativity, motivation and passion to take Bahrain’s tourism industry to the next level.