Bahrain Tourism Fears Going Dry

By Mohammad Fadhel

MANAMA ~ Bahrain’s tourism industry, which has long-thrived on visitors from its “dry” neighbors in the Gulf, faces a tough challenge with the introduction of curbs on alcohol and nightclubs.

For now, the 27-kilometer-long causeway linking the archipelago to eastern Saudi Arabia continues to be crowded every weekend as thousands escape the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom for a break.

But since May 1, alcohol is now restricted to five-star hotels and banned in all restaurants neighboring mosques, schools or residential areas, under a ministerial decision.

About 85 non-five-star hotels have been ordered to close nightclubs hosting foreign bands on their premises and to stop selling alcohol if they are in the designated areas.

And this even though the Gulf state had become a watering hole for Westerners and Arabs from neighboring countries.

“The effect of such decisions will not be limited to hotels. The whole market in Bahrain will be affected … Tourists come here thanks to shopping malls, tolerance and freedom, and not only for hotels,” said Ahmad Sanad, head of the Bahraini Association of Hotel and Restaurant Owners.

“These decisions seem like collective punishment,” he said.

Sanad said such curbs should have been imposed only on the recommendation of the tourism and interior ministries on proof of “unlawful behavior” in the targeted establishments.

“It’s an attempt to appease the Islamist blocs in parliament,” Sanad said, pointing out that the small kingdom has an Islamist-dominated parliament despite being a key US ally in the region.

Between them, Sunni and Shiite Islamists control 30 out of 40 seats in the parliament, which was elected in November and December.

The Sunni Islamist bloc, which groups the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis, controls 13 seats. They have been calling for years for alcohol-free tourism, although they have never drafted such a law.

The 17 Shiite MPs from the Islamic National Accord Association (INAA) – who represent the majority community in the Sunni-ruled dynasty – are making their debut in the assembly after boycotting the previous ballot.

Although they differ with Sunni Islamists on other issues, they are unlikely to oppose a ban on alcohol or nightclubs.

But hotel owners argue that job cuts will be one of the results.

“Between 2,000 and 3,000 Bahrainis who work in the hotel sector (and related activities) will be affected … These decisions will hit the core of tourism in Bahrain in the future,” said hotel group owner Hussein al-Mozawib.

“Bahrain is a tolerant and open country where alcohol has been common since the beginning of the last century … It is a fact that tourists come here because our country is tolerant and open,” he said.

He warned that banning alcohol would cause a sharp drop in hotel business of around 60 percent.

But despite an order to shut nightclubs in four-star hotels in effect since April 14, most are still open, with some of their owners saying that they will defy the ruling.

Meanwhile Saudi visitors – the main source of Bahrain’s tourism – continue to jam the causeway to Bahrain every Wednesday on the eve of the Muslim weekend.

These visitors arriving in thousands of cars are, however, not necessarily all seeking alcohol, which is banned in their home country.

“I always make sure that I go to the movies. Shopping malls also appeal to me,” said Omar al-Qahtani, 26, standing at the entrance of a cinema in Al-Seif mall on the northern coast of Manama.

“Many Saudi families prefer to spend the weekend in these malls because they have everything,” he added.

Cinemas are banned in Saudi Arabia, while shopping centers are subject to strict scrutiny from the notorious religious police that ban contact between the sexes and make sure that women are covered from head to toe.

Omar’s friend Saleh al-Qahtani, 24, also did not appear to be too concerned.

“It will not strongly affect the wish of the Saudis to visit Bahrain, as most of them are families who like to spend the weekend in a family environment,” he said.

But for Ali, from the northwestern Saudi town of Hail and who declined to give his surname, the decision will definitely affect tourism.

“Shutting down (nightclubs) in small hotels will affect a large portion of tourists … Not all of us are wealthy to be able to spend our weekend in five-star hotels,” he said as he smoked the popular Shisha or water pipe in a bar in a one-star hotel.

“The atmosphere of tolerance and freedom is what sets Bahrain apart,” he added.

According to official 2006 statistics, Bahrain had 117 hotels of all classes that employed 7,000 workers, including 1,788 Bahrainis.

As the only Gulf Arab state to have run out of oil to export, Bahrain has launched a string of ambitious tourism projects topping US$2 billion in a bid to diversify sources of revenue.

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