Manama: A weekend getaway for Saudis
Dhahran - If Dubai is the Middle East version of Las Vegas without the gambling, then Bahrain’s Manama would be Reno. Manama may be a little rough around the edges with second-tier entertainment and fewer places to visit than the UAE city but it provides plenty of fun options for tourists.
Saudis heading from Riyadh and Dammam for the nightlife in Bahrain on weekends get all the attention and certainly there is plenty of that in Manama. The 24km King Fahd Bridge that connects the Saudi Eastern province with Bahrain is packed on weekends — with as much as 50% more traffic than on weekdays.
For Saudis living in the north, Manama is more accessible. One can even go home at the end of the night without the prospect of jet lag or the hassle of an airport. Dubai, by contrast, takes planning and patience. The benefits of top-notch fun are enticing but one’s wallet will take a beating in Dubai.
Although Manama may have a reputation as the unsupervised playground for some Saudis, the reality is that the capital is far more a family town. And that is how most Saudis like it.
Twice a month after Friday prayers, for example, Khalid bundles his two young daughters, teenage son and wife into their Toyota Fortuner for the one-hour drive from Dammam to Manama.
After checking into a mid-range hotel not far from the city centre, the family ventures out, first for dinner and then to a movie. Their routine rarely varies.
“It’s like an extended holiday in just two days,” said Khalid, who spoke on the condition that only his first name be used. “It’s like releasing a valve on a pressure cooker. We get to relax and breathe a little.”
According to the 2016 World Travel & Tourism report, Bahrain’s tourism industry accounted for 10.6% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2015 and that figure is expected to reach 14% of GDP by 2026. Saudi families spent as much as $106 million in Bahrain in 2015. At least 7 million Saudis visit the island nation annually and are among the 84.3% of visitors to Bahrain who spend their money solely on leisure activities.
Sheikh Khalid bin Humood al- Khalifa, acting chief executive of the Bahrain Tourism and Exhibitions Authority, said that 59% of all visitors to Bahrain are Saudis. Nearly two-thirds of Saudi tourists arrive in Bahrain via the causeway and 22% travel by air.
At a three-star hotel on Tijjar Avenue, a manager said Saudis prefer the more upscale hotels or executive apartments but mid-range accommodations appeal to middle-class families on a tight budget. “They’re all creatures of habit,” said the manager. “It’s dinner here at our restaurant or someplace nearby, then off to the movies.”
For Khalid’s family, their regular hangout for a meal is Señor Paco’s Mexican restaurant in the Adliya district, then to a multiplex. On a recent visit, mum and dad watched the latest James Bond film while the children saw a Disney movie in the next theatre.
Now that his children are getting older, Khalid noted that movies and dinner were not enough to satisfy their desire to be entertained. Next year, the family plans to attend Bahrain’s heritage festival and perhaps the fine arts festival.
Zayed R. Alzayani, Bahrain’s minister of Industry, Commerce and Tourism, said recently at a conference sponsored by the Bahrain Tourism & Exhibitions Authority that the island nation hopes to attract more visitors from China and India and create port facilities for yachts to anchor. The concept, he said, was to present Bahrain as an island-living destination.
“We are also looking at revamping the port facilities to provide better infrastructure to the yachts that bring tourists to the country,” Alzayani said at a conference in Manama. “This will include facilities that will be able to receive yachts from the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] and support yachts moving from north to south on the Arabian Gulf.”