Bahrain: cultural investment set the stage for tourism growth

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By Francesca Bruni

Focused investment showcases rich cultural heritage. Interview to Shaikha Mai bint Khalifa Al Khalifa, the President of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities (BACA), with the prerogatives of minister.

Bahrain is taking part in Expo 2015 with a pavilion dedicated to the country’s agrarian culture, landscape and civilization, “Archaeologies of Green”. What is your impression of Expo 2015 and what returns will your country gain from having participated?

Firstly, I would like to applaud the Italian government for their efforts in organizing Expo 2015, which has been a resounding success that is reflected in visitor numbers and the overall positive feedback. In August alone, our Pavilion has hosted over 450,000 guests.

Following the Expo’s theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” the Bahrain Pavilion’s “Archaeologies of Green” theme promotes our agrarian heritage, history, culture and food through a series of intersecting gardens, an archaeological exhibition featuring artefacts from the Dilmun and Tylos eras and a vibrant event programme.

Our participation in this international event raises the profile of the Kingdom of Bahrain as a distinct hub of cultural activity within the region and our activities continue to gain both regional and global recognition because of platforms like the Universal Exposition. The interest and response translates into tourism and economic opportunities, while the Pavilion will remain a legacy that reconnects visitors to the agricultural heritage of Bahrain.

Our choice of design and content was based on our desire to raise awareness of the importance of safeguarding our heritage and conserving our green, natural, historic landscapes as well as the culinary traditions and cultures associated with it.

Focusing on the theme of sustainability of Expo 2015, the Pavilion has been designed to be dismantled and transported back to Bahrain, where it will be reassembled and stand as a permanent botanical garden to be enjoyed by locals and visitors alike.

Culture is to be considered as capital, especially in those countries without abundant natural resources, such as Bahrain and Italy. What are the principal cultural and artistic itineraries that Bahrain offers to attract foreign tourists?

Bahrain is very rich in culture, heritage and spirit, providing tourists with several options to experience. Examples of this are the two UNESCO World Heritage sites, Bahrain Fort and the Path of Pearls. The Bahrain Fort is an ancient harbour and the site of the Dilmun capital. The grounds host an onsite museum. The Path of Pearls is the most important and most complete remaining example of the pearling cultural traditions that shaped the economies and identities of the Gulf countries. The Path begins with a scenic boat ride to Bu Maher Fort, an old fort with a Visitors Center to guide tourists visiting the route. The Bahrain National Museum allows visitors to discover over 6,000 years of history. We are also home to three forts built over several periods of Bahrain’s history. Visitors can also visit old marketplaces like Bab Al-Bahrain and Suq Al-Qasariya, or visit the world-famous Tree of Life, a 400-year-old tree surviving to this day in the midst of the desert. We also host 4 major festivals a year: the Spring of Culture, the Heritage Festival, Bahrain Summer and the Music Festival.

What is involved in the “Investing in Culture” programme that you are promoting? Following the first phase, what do you consider to be the returns from this programme?

We have a collective responsibility to promote an educational and cultural dialogue through the arts. It therefore brings me great honour to have launched this initiative, which encourages the private sector to invest in Bahrain’s cultural scene and infrastructure. This initiative has been a resounding success, and in the last few years, I am happy to say that we have gathered the equivalent of approximately 100 million US Dollars from the private sector, including several private companies, banks, and individuals.

The primary contributor is His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, who has been extremely supportive of our efforts over the years. His Majesty was the primary sponsor for the Bahrain National Theatre, for which we are extremely grateful.

We can therefore say that the returns of this initiative have allowed us to build the platform necessary to place the Kingdom of Bahrain on the international cultural map.

“Investing in Culture” is an authentic cultural and tourist promotion programme, unique in the Gulf area. What do you propose for those who come and wish to invest?

Those who want to invest must believe in the importance of preserving and promoting culture and in the importance of human heritage. Cultural institutions are contributors to the economy. They serve every community and are valuable community anchors as well as educational institutions. They are places where mutual exchanges happen, where connections are made and creativity flourishes. They serve and inspire the public.

Exhibitions, repertory operatic and theatrical productions as well as collections, new art and culture venues and also restorations are covered by “Investing in Culture”. Under this programme, what is the distinction between ephemeral and permanent cultural investments?

I believe that ephemeral and permanent cultural investments complete each other. They both exist under the same umbrella of sustaining and promoting culture and allow a richer cultural environment to flourish. Ephermal cultural programs allows our audiences, be they locals or visitors, to experience the culture and arts scene of different parts of the world, through forms including operas and art exhibits. Our more permanent parts of our cultural infrastructure is primarily focused on our local heritage and culture, both ancient and contemporary, connecting them to a global audience, while ensuring that locals maintain strong ties with their country’s heritage.

What economic returns are there on investments in permanent works? In your opinion, can this be a determining factor in a country’s growth? In perspective and with a national strategy?

Yes, of course, investment in the culture and the cultural infrastructure of a society has a financial and economic return for the country in the long run. As an island, Bahrain has historically always been open to the world, welcoming visitors and traders alike. As a nation, we have identified cultural tourism as an important part of our economy, and that is why we see both the public and private sector investing in this field. Distinct from regular tourism, cultural tourism specifically celebrates a country’s history, art, architecture and the traditions that have shaped a way of life.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi have different strategies and different attractions that are focused more on leisure and luxury than on culture. What is your opinion about this? Would it be conceivable to initiate a shared program with them?

I applaud what our neighbours are doing in the field of tourism and I believe that each country has a unique value proposition for tourists. Our strategies and attractions compliment each other. Recent trends have shown that tourists visit multiple destinations in the region due to the distinct experiences found in each country.

We have collaborated in several programs with our neighbouring countries in the Gulf, with one such program being an exhibit we showcased at the Sharjah Archaeology Museum entitled “Ancient Bahrain: The Power of Trade” (2nd Millennium BC – 3rd Century AD). Shared programs such as these strengthen the already strong cultural and historical ties we have with our neighbours.

Italy has a great deal of art that is not on display, requesting loans of artwork favors the cultural exchange between countries. What are your thoughts on the subject?

We respect exchange of cultures but we limit them to ephemeral exhibitions for the public to enjoy. This can be seen today at the Bahrain National Museum, we are in collaboration with the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, USA for the “Kalila and Dimna, Fables Across Time Exhibition,” which will run until September and “The Sicily of the Leopard in Piraino’s Collection” (until July 2015), which was on loan to us for the first time in the Middle East. We enjoy and welcome this type of exchange and our communities and cultural tourism profits from bringing ephemeral exhibitions from other countries.

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