A year has passed since the normalization agreement signed between Israel and Bahrain, within the framework of the Abrahamic Agreements, and these days in Bahrain it is hoped that tourism from Israel will be a lever for the recovery of tourism in the country, which, like all over the world, has suffered a severe blow. “We know what the Israelis did to tourism in Dubai and want to see them here as well,” says Abbas, a veteran tourism guide in Bahrain, while I was in the country, which some already call “Dubai’s little sister.” Others are talking about the fact that in the future she may also become the “big sister” when it comes to tourism.
In 2019, before the outbreak of a world-changing epidemic, about 12 million tourists visited Bahrain, of which about eight million were from Saudi Arabia. Many Saudi tourists still come to Bahrain for a short time today to shop in the luxurious malls or for a family weekend getaway. But the corona year has hit the tourism industry hard, and the kingdom’s goal is to restore the crown to its former glory soon.
As a result, Bahrain has begun to take practical steps to encourage tourism from Israel, including facilitating the procedure of issuing visas to Israelis, so that anyone applying for an entry visa is not required to present transactions of his bank account in the last three months, as in the past. Also, about a week ago, on the same day as the Foreign Minister Yair Lapid An Israeli minister’s first visit to the capital Manama, Bahrain’s national airline, Gulf Air, has launched a historic direct flight to Ben Gurion Airport. Flights are currently offered at bargain prices: a flight ticket until the end of the month will cost $ 199 in economy class including luggage and $ 635 in business class.
As of Nov. 1, the price of a plane ticket will be $ 282, including luggage. The duration of the flight – which currently departs twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays – is about two and a half hours, and the company intends to fly Israelis not only to Bahrain, but also to further destinations. Among other things, it offers launch prices of $ 399 for flights from Ben Gurion Airport to the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand.
On the historic maiden flight from Ben Gurion Airport to Bahrain, in which I am taking part, there were already Israelis who took advantage of the operation. “We went on vacation in the Maldives,” they tell me. “On the return flight, we will stay overnight in Bahrain.” Bahrain’s national airline estimates that the investment will be worthwhile and expects that after the destination becomes popular with Israelis, the frequency of flights will increase.
English and Arabic
The Kingdom of Bahrain, located in the Persian Gulf and has a population of about 1.76 million, includes 33 islands, including five large islands. The total area of the kingdom is about 760 square kilometers, and in a journey of about two and a half hours it can be surrounded. Bahrain has a maritime border with Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Accessibility to Saudi Arabia has become overland, after a bridge and a road above the water were built about 35 years ago. In the past, there were also plans to build a bridge between Bahrain and Qatar, but the project has not yet been implemented.
The kingdom, which gained independence from Britain in 1971, is now headed by King Hemed bin Issa al-Khalifa, and is headed by a government, which is the executive branch, and is headed by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa. The royal family numbers about 4,000 people.
The diversity of Bahrain is fascinating: on the one hand skyscrapers with impressive architectural designs, a variety of malls offering abundant brands, entertainment areas and a Formula 1 track, and on the other hand ancient markets, men and women in traditional Muslim dress and foreign workers, mostly from India, Bangladesh and the Philippines. The kingdom is also home to immigrants from Iran and Iraq, as well as Palestinians who are mainly engaged in teaching. Common to Bahrain’s human mosaic is the English language, which is spoken by most residents alongside Arabic.
Bahrain has two seasons – a hot season and a very hot season. In summer the temperatures sometimes reach over 50 degrees, and in November-April they drop to about 25-30 degrees on average.
Today the country is defined as green, and the number of patients in Corona where it has been in recent days has only tens every day. Huge billboards encourage residents to get vaccinated and tested, and despite the strong desire to see tourism thrive, tourists have no discounts on Corona guidelines. Upon arrival at the airport, a corona test should be performed and then stay in isolation in a hotel room until the result is obtained, which arrives after about 8-12 hours. Most people in malls and enclosed spaces wear masks, and at the same time, restaurants, cafes and places of entertainment operate as usual.
During my stay in the country, the hosts went out of their way to make Israelis feel like welcome guests. In the room at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, an enlightening sign awaits each of the guests, greeting them with a “Welcome” greeting with their first name, along with balloons that adorn the room.
Bahrain invests a lot of resources in tourism, and it offers a variety of luxurious and impressive hotels, alongside chefs restaurants, vibrant clubs and authentic markets. The Twin Towers, which form the trade center of Bahrain, have become a symbol of the skyline of the capital Manama. They are designed in the shape of two boats, and three wind turbine bridges connect them.
Bahrain is called the “Pearl of the Gulf” not only because of its unique beauty, but also because of the fact that in the past pearls were extracted from its waters for commercial purposes. Even today there are those who go sailing and scuba diving in search of oysters with pearls at the bottom of the water. I go on a cruise like this with Muhammad, whose father’s family immigrated here in the past. At a certain point he stops the ship, and we, the sailors, get to go down into the water and dive in the hope of extracting oysters and maybe even pearls from them.
The experiential dive lasts about an hour. With the kind assistance of the escorts, we manage to collect dozens of oysters, then open the oysters using a special knife, clean them and look for pearls. In some oysters we do indeed excitedly locate small pearls. Anyone who wants to use them as a souvenir – can enter the jeweler’s market and ask him to design them on a piece of jewelry. The experience, which lasts about half a day, costs about NIS 300 per adult.
Two types of transportation are common in Bahrain – vehicles and ships. The average family here owns three or four vehicles, and their price compared to Israel is enviable. A new Toyota Corolla costs about NIS 70,000 in Bahrain, and the variety of cars on the roads is impressive. The cruise industry is a means of transportation between the islands, and it offers a variety of attractions, including fishing, experiential cruises and a huge water park.
Our next destination is Bahrain Fortress, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2005. On our way there we pass the Grand Al-Fatah Mosque on the outskirts of the capital Manama. The mosque with its impressive architectural design can accommodate more than 7,000 worshipers at a time. The fortress of Bahrain, built about 3,000 years ago, stands out for its unique design, and a tour of it against the backdrop of the sunset and the prayer of the muezzin enhances the experience.
This day in Bahrain ends with an open-air nightclub on the beach, packed with local young men and women, dancing to the sounds of Western music, drinking alcohol and smoking hookahs. Admission to the club costs about $ 40, and the demand on weekends is particularly high. “We expect many tourists to come here as well. The place is open to everyone, ”says the owner of the place, Kyriakos, who is from Greece.
The third day in Bahrain opens at the Aji restaurant in the ancient area of Manama. There are men with white galleys and red capes and women covering their heads and some of their faces with veils. Against the backdrop of intoxicating baking smells rising from the nearby bakery ovens, the local breakfast becomes a special experience.
The ancient market in Manama is fascinating. It stretches over small, flat streets, which do not require effort on foot, and has a colorful atmosphere. The hundreds of stalls and shops in it offer souvenirs, fabrics, clothes, footwear, spices, street food and of course local lokum. What I did not find in the markets were stamps.
You can wander for long hours between the stalls and shops and experience the unique market, which seems to have not changed in centuries. The traders here show great courtesy, and after standing on the bargain respectfully, it is also possible to significantly reduce the prices initially requested. For example, a seller at a souvenir shop initially demanded five dinars for a plate, but eventually, after promising to buy more souvenirs, the price of the plate dropped by half.
Tourists are advised to arrive equipped with local currency. Admittedly the traders get dollars, but it may be at a lower rate, and the surplus is returned in any case only in the Bahraini currency. The merchants here have not yet learned Hebrew, and most of them meet Israelis here for the first time.
For those who need their espresso in the morning, it is recommended to come to the market after a drink at a hotel or cafe in a nearby shopping center, because the market itself only offers Arab coffee and tea as hot drinks. After a tour of the market we continued to the synagogue which is located not far away. Only a sign in Hebrew at the entrance announces arrival at the place. The Jewish community in Bahrain, which has a rich history, currently numbers only about 35 people, and the local parliament has an reserved seat for a Jewish representative. Last Saturday, four Jews prayed in the synagogue, against the backdrop of a curtain with a blessing decoration on the occasion of the signing of the peace agreement with Israel, one Torah scroll in the Holy Ark and a screen with a live broadcast from the Western Wall.
The place is managed by Avraham Nono, who is waiting for more worshipers to arrive, in light of the opening of the Israeli embassy and the expectation of the arrival of Israeli tourists, some of whom are traditionalists. These days Nono is desperately looking for a synagogue. Adjacent to the synagogue is a souvenir shop of the Jewish community, with all proceeds donated to medical research.
Our next stop is lunch at the Mercant House Boutique Hotel, adjacent to the market, followed by a visit to the National Museum of Bahrain, which combines 500 years of culture and history with its impressive exhibits. The museum, established in 1988, has two buildings and is adjacent to the Bahrain National Theater, which is considered the third largest in the Arab world, after Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and has about 1,000 seats.
In the evening we visit the lively entertainment complex on Block 338, which includes dozens of clubs and restaurants. We enter the Escobar Club, where there is an amazing atmosphere: the DJ combines foreign songs with Arab songs, and the local young people are dressed in modern attire. “Rejoice and dance, but do not take pictures inside the club,” the host asks us to keep the blazers private.
The fourth day in Bahrain opens at the Formula 1 complex, given the fact that the country is one of the hosts of the prestigious World Race. When there are no races, you can experience karting. From here we continue to visit the palace of the prince Rashid bin Khalifa al-Khalifa known as a painter and art lover. His palace features large halls and long corridors with hundreds of original works of art, some of which were purchased and some painted by him. The source of the works is in a private collection that has only recently been revealed to the general public. To visit the place, you must register in advance.
The next stop on the journey is the private beach of the Ritz Carlton Hotel, where the soft sand leading to the water was brought from Saudi Arabia. In the hotel’s huge and well-kept complex, which includes a water pool with flamingos, six-room villas are offered at prices of about NIS 7,000 per night. Most of the guests here come from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf countries, but the said hosts are waiting for the day when the Israelis will also arrive for a vacation at the villa.
It is impossible to end a visit to Bahrain without visiting one of the local malls here, where brand prices seem to be cheaper than in Tel Aviv. We end our trip at a Greek restaurant on the pedestrian mall in Manama, which has become a lively meeting place for locals and locals alike.
The writer was a guest of the Gulf Air Company and the Bahrain Tourist Office
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