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China Daily Global / 2021-06 / 24 / Page007

Bahrain sets sights on return of Chinese tourists

By JAN YUMUL in Hong Kong | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-06-24 00:00

Prioritizing an important market like China to restart its pandemic-hit tourism sector can yield huge opportunities for Bahrain, experts said.

At the Arabian Travel Market held in Dubai in May, Bahrain's Minister of Industry, Commerce and Tourism, Zayed Alzayani, told a panel discussion that part of Bahrain's strategy was to encourage more inbound tourists from China.

Alzayani, who is also the chairman of Bahraini airline Gulf Air, said China "remains a priority".

Anis Khayati, an assistant professor at the Economics and Finance Department of the College of Business Administration at the University of Bahrain, said the Chinese market represents "the most important market now in the world" and believes Bahrain should do more to strengthen its people-to-people exchanges with China.

According to a report by Swiss research agency m1nd-set, China's international travel segment is expected to return to pre-COVID-19 levels by 2023, when outbound traffic is forecast to reach 88 million.

For travel agency operators based in Bahrain like Fatima Ahmed, the owner and managing director of IBN Firnas Travel and Tourism, Bahrain's strategy to attract more Chinese tourists could help travel businesses nurture new growth markets.

She has lost potential clients to countries such as the United Arab Emirates, which has direct flights with China.

" (China) is a new market for us. In 2019, I was trying to close a (tour package) deal, but could not, due to lack of direct flights," Ahmed said.

"So our hopes are high for Gulf Air or any of the Chinese airlines to start direct operations."

She said the company's biggest market is Saudi Arabia, with Germany, India and the United Kingdom also strong. By 2018, Russia and France had become important.

"Today, we are targeting China and a few Commonwealth of Independent States countries such as Azerbaijan," said Ahmed.

Long-term expansion

Waleed Al Alawi, acting chief executive officer of Gulf Air, said the airline had earlier operated direct flights from Shanghai, but now has cargo-only services between Bahrain and several points in China.

"Currently, China is not part of our scheduled long-haul network but we are constantly monitoring this opportunity as part of our long-term expansion strategy," Al Alawi said.

Efforts to grow Bahrain's tourism sector were derailed in 2020 with the outbreak.

Before the pandemic, Chinese visitors to the six nations that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council had been expected to generate an estimated $3.48 billion in travel and tourism revenue by 2023, Arabian Business, an online news portal in Dubai, reported in 2019.

Khayati said Bahrain's tourism sector can benefit from the country's good infrastructure, relaxed visa requirements and cooperation efforts on vaccines, as well as the steps taken to promote Bahrain's relations with China.

In 2014, Bahrain became the first GCC country to offer visas on arrival for Chinese tourists.

Four years later, Bahrain and China signed a mutual visa-exemption agreement for diplomatic and holders of special passports, allowing for stays of up to 90 days.

Last year, Bahrain, along with the UAE, was among the first countries to approve the emergency use of Chinese-made COVID-19 vaccines.

Khayati said that five years ago, the two countries "had already promoted their industrial cooperation" by the establishment of Dragon City, a trading center in northern Bahrain.


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