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Traders in the Manama suq (traders market) have welcomed news that cruise liners will be returning to Bahrain this winter, but say they need more than a few thousand cruise tourists to kick start their business.
The area was hit hard by unrest last year, with some businesses closing in the aftermath because of a drop in the number of foreign tourists and a sharp decline in the number of people spending money there.
Many shoppers were scared away by anti-government protests, while gangs of opposition demonstrators forced many businesses to close by threatening shopkeepers.
There have also been attempts to hold protests in the area this year and there was a large police presence in Manama on Thursday to stop an unauthorised protest, which would further disrupt business going ahead.
However, business owners said the situation had largely returned to normal in the area — although shoppers had not returned in large numbers.
They are now calling on authorities to do more to support the suq all year round.
“A few hundred cruise tourists (from each ship) will not make a difference,” said trader Abdulkarim Al Fulaij.
“They will come to the suq to buy a few articles and leave. That is not going to sustain any businesses.”
He said the area must be developed, making it more appealing to the local population as well as tourists.
“Having cycle and auto rickshaws like those in India and Thailand, traditional eating houses and banning all traffic could be some of the ideas,” he said.
He revealed he had presented his proposals to the government several months ago, but was awaiting a response.
“We are, of course, excited that the cruise lines are returning and will do what we can to make these tourists welcome,” he added.
Another trader, Ahmed Mansoor, said the government should invest in beautifying the area further and must expand its focus beyond the Bab Al Bahrain area, where a new complex has already been opened and more work is underway.
“There are steps now being taken to renovate Bab Al Bahrain, but the whole area still looks messy,” he said.
“Why can’t we have proper maintenance of the buildings?”
He suggested making the area a pedestrian-only zone and setting up attractions for local people to woo them back from the air conditioned malls.
“If people can spend evenings in parks and malls, they should be made to come to the suq — but only after it is made attractive for them,” said Mr Mansoor.
However, he added he was excited that cruise tourists would be coming back.
“Some colour will return at least during the winter,” he said.
Meanwhile, trader Sadiq Mohammed said he would be more optimistic if every cruise tourist was taken to the suq.
“If 2,000 tourists come with every cruise, only a third of them come to the suq,” he estimated.
“The others go to other areas. There should be special buses that bring them to the suq first and then take them elsewhere, because it is only in the suq that they will spend money.”
The GDN reported on Tuesday that at least 33 stops by cruise ships had been confirmed at the Khalifa Bin Salman Port starting in November.
Aida and TUI, both leading German cruise line operators, will call every Wednesday and Friday until April, Culture Ministry tourism marketing and promotion acting director Mohammed Al Subaie said.
He said talks were also underway with other operators and Bahrain could host up to 60 port calls by cruise liners during the coming season.
Cruise companies have expressed willingness to return to Bahrain after a raft of measures were agreed to offset higher insurance costs.
Increased insurance charges for docking in Bahrain in the wake of unrest mean each cruise operator will have to pay an additional $300,000 (BD113,129) over the course of a season.
However, the GDN previously reported Bahrain had decided to halve port fees for cruise ships in a bid to lure back operators when the new season opens.
Tourism companies and port authorities are also offering discounts worth tens of thousands of dinars.