Cruising in contemporary Arabia

Located at the crossroads of the East and West, the Arabian Gulf offers a diverse range of attractions. Rebecca Gibson explores how the Cruise Arabia Alliance is working with partners to promote the region to cruise operators

Cruising in contemporary Arabia
Cruise visitors can enjoy fine dining and visit boutique shops on the island of Pearl-Qatar
This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2015 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review.

Billed as a luxurious yet affordable destination, the Arabian Gulf offers something for every type of visitor. From the mountains in Oman, to the boutique shops in Dubai, to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Al Ain in Abu Dhabi, and the dhow rides and the Khor Al Adaid (Inland Sea) in Qatar, the region’s diverse and unusual shore excursions are growing increasingly popular with cruise passengers.

“Visiting the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf offers passengers the chance to try shore excursions, fine dining and once-in-a-lifetime cultural experiences that are entirely different to anything they will have experienced during cruises in the more well-established Mediterranean or Caribbean markets,” says Hassan Al-ibrahim, chief tourism development officer at Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA). “Our region’s natural beauty and traditional Bedouin culture are juxtaposed with ultra-modern skylines, luxury hotels, amusement parks and sports facilities, creating truly memorable experiences that appeal to all types of cruise passengers.”

Khalid Jasim Al Midfa, director general of Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA), notes that these diverse attractions have led to remarkable growth in the region’s cruise sector over the past few years. “The Middle East and the Arabian Gulf aren’t immediately identified with cruise tourism, but there’s now a greater awareness that our region offers unusual shore excursion and itinerary opportunities, the chance to easily visit a variety of diverse destinations – and of course, enjoy guaranteed winter sun,” he says. “Sharjah’s Khorfakkan Port welcomed 35 international cruise calls and 80,000 visitors in 2014-2015, and expects to handle 43 calls and 93,000 passengers in 2015-2016.”

In Abu Dhabi, guests can tour the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, take afternoon tea at Emirates Palace, or try traditional desert activities, such as sunrise dune tours and camel rides, at the purpose-built Arabian Nights Village near Mina Zayed. Meanwhile in Dubai, cruise guests can climb Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest tower, or head to numerous museums and exhibitions, water parks, deserts, or the beach.

Qatar offers the UNESCO World Heritage site of Al Zubarah, the Museum of Islamic Art, Souq Waqif, Doha Corniche promenade, the purpose-built Katara Cultural Village and Pearl-Qatar island.

“From the tranquil desert, beaches and mangrove lagoons, to the lively souks, the coastal fortresses, the modern high-rise towers, luxury hotels and bustling tourist attractions, Qatar offers a kaleidoscope of contrasting experiences for cruise passengers,” says QTA’s Al-ibrahim. “We’ve made significant investments to build more hotels and enhance our tourism infrastructure to ensure that cruise guests can always find new attractions.”

According to SCTDA’s Al Midfa, part of Sharjah’s appeal is that it offers an authentic Arabian atmosphere that can be difficult to find in some of the Gulf’s more contemporary cities. “Cruise tourism offers Sharjah a great opportunity to showcase the emirate’s rich cultural heritage with all the comforts of a contemporary tourist destination,” he says, adding that traditional dancers welcome passengers at the cruise terminal. “Visitors can head to the mangroves, mountains and wadis of Kalba and Dibba Al Hisn, or learn more about our heritage by visiting the old restored city centre, the traditional markets and the Museum of Islamic Civilization – there’s a reason Sharjah has been named the 2015 Arab Tourism Capital. We can also organise site inspections and collaborate directly with cruise operators to help them plan the best possible itineraries.”

In an effort to transform the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman into a top global cruise destination, Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority and Oman’s Ministry of Tourism formed the Cruise Arabia Alliance in late 2013. The alliance works in partnership with local businesses, ports, cruise lines and destination partners such as global port operator DP World and Emirates Airlines. Two new regional partners – QTA and SCTDA – joined the alliance in January 2015. “The Cruise Arabia Alliance brings together destination associations, port authorities, tour operators and private stakeholders to make the Middle East a commercially viable and competitive destination for major cruise operators,” says Hamad Mohammed bin Mejren, senior vice president of Dubai Tourism. “We want the Middle East and Arabian Gulf to become the world’s leading winter cruise destination, so we’re developing more pre- and post-cruise options and unifying our marketing efforts to showcase the diverse shorex and itinerary possibilities at domestic, national and global maritime events.”

This collaborative approach is already delivering results. “Although Qatar is relatively new to the alliance, the cooperation has already allowed us to make good headway in delivering the infrastructure, products and services we need to boost our cruise offering,” enthuses Al-ibrahim. “Sharing data, experiences and ideas with various stakeholders – such as port authorities, immigration and destination management companies – will allow each destination to continually improve their own cruise tourism offering and make the Arabian Gulf a magnet for successful regional cruise itineraries.”

Regulatory changes to the UAE visa system have also made travelling in the region cheaper, easier and more attractive.

“Since August 2014, tourists have been able to enter the UAE using a single US$55 multi-entry visa, which has simplified the immigration process and made it cheaper and easier for operators to offer regional cruises,” explains Sultan Al Dhaheri, acting executive director of Tourism at Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi). “In addition to making the region more attractive to the traditional European and North American cruise markets, the new visa has also had a big impact on potential source markets such as India, China, Russia, South Africa, South America and Brazil. We hope the improved access will encourage them to extend their Far East itineraries to the Arabian Gulf.”

To date, Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah have largely featured as port of calls on Arabian Gulf and Middle East itineraries. However, now that major cruise lines are eyeing expansion into new Middle East countries and bringing larger ships to the region, each destination is focused on improving its overall cruise offering, from terminals to onshore activities and accommodation.

While Sharjah aims to open a dedicated cruise terminal at Khorfakkan port to attract more global cruise passengers in the near future, Qatar plans to turn Doha port into a dedicated cruise terminal by mid-2016 and construct hotels, a metro system and other tourist attractions in preparation for hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Abu Dhabi will open a new 8,000sqm cruise terminal at Zayed Port in the 2015-2016 season. Its first homeporting ship, MSC Cruises’ MSC Musica, will sail 16 seven-night cruises from the country. Designed using feedback from cruise lines, ship handling agents and ground shorex service providers, the terminal will enable the port to accommodate three mega cruise ships simultaneously.

“We’re forging strong commercial links in the private sector to develop exclusive homeporting incentives to make cruising to and from Abu Dhabi more attractive,” says Al Dhaheri from TCA Abu Dhabi. “We’re also opening Sir Bani Yas Island, the Arabian Gulf’s first dedicated beach stopover for cruise ships. Plus, our dedicated industry development committee of stakeholders, tour operators and organisations continues to find ways to improve Abu Dhabi’s entire cruise offering.”

Dubai, which already serves a homeport for five major cruise lines and regularly receives calls from 20 other international cruise operators at Port Rashid, plans to enhance tourist facilities in Mina Rashid. “Last year, we handled 94 ships and more than 358,000 cruise tourists, and opened a new 27,000sqm terminal – the world’s largest – in December 2014,” says Merjen. “We’re confident that we’ll welcome more cruise ships in 2015 and beyond, so we need to make our destination even more appealing to tourists in both our key source markets and emerging markets.”

Merjen adds: “Together, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Oman and Qatar showcase the best of the Arabian Gulf and cater to cruise visitors of all ages and cultures. Now that travelling to multiple destinations is more affordable and there’s an ever-expanding choice of onshore activities and accommodation options, it’s even easier for cruise operators to plan a seven-night itinerary in the Arabian Gulf. We hope to welcome many more passengers to the region to experience our deep-rooted heritage, natural landscapes and contemporary cities, and enjoy a relaxed holiday.”

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Rebecca Gibson
By Rebecca Gibson
Tuesday, February 2, 2016