It’s nothing new for tourists to visit a place in order to do something that would be prohibited where they live. Whether it’s lower drinking ages, legalized drugs, or legalized gambling, some places thrive off of such tourism. Bahrain, for example, serves as a sort of liberalized haven for many of those living in Islamist Saudi Arabia. The country's lenient drinking laws have attracted Saudi escapists, who in turn contribute nearly ten percent to Bahrain’s economy. So why are Bahraini legislators contemplating scrapping the country’s drinking laws and imposing near-total prohibition?
For starters, some Bahraini cities have been gaining an unwanted reputation as sleazy havens in the Gulf. Bahrain’s capital, Manama, recently landed itself on the list of a men’s website article as “one of the top 10 cities to pursue vice and debauchery”. But, if business is good, why should it matter? Las Vegas, Nevada, in the United States stakes its reputation, and subsequently its primary source of income as being a city of vice and debauchery (Sin City). It is possible, however, that the Bahraini proposal could make sense from a business perspective too.
Bahrain offers a multitude of family-friendly entertainment options that are currently outlawed in Saudi Arabia. A few of the milder options include multiplex theaters, a water park, and dining and shopping locales which are not segregated by sex. The reasoning for Bahraini officials is that family tourism generates a higher spend-per-person than “bachelor tourism,” which often consists of fewer tourists spending less money.
However, the alcohol ban may be too late, as Bahrain has already established a reputation as being somewhere Saudis can go to enjoy the “vices” they are denied in their own country. Paolo Arca, co-owner and manager of Italian Restaurant Oliveto in Manama says, "Who's going to come here if they can't drink anymore? Financially, the entire economy would collapse…” Similarly, there are many cases of massive profit losses to the establishments on which the ban has already been imposed. Bahrain is a desirable place for Saudis to come precisely because of the vices it offers. The image may not be pretty, but Bahraini lawmakers have to ask themselves which they would rather have: a glowing reputation or a massive hit to their economy?
The issue still stands: could Bahrain turn around its image and generate just as much, if not more revenue through family-friendly tourism? Or will the initial hit to the economy cause them to repeal their alcohol restrictions?