A winter sun success story in the Arabian Gulf

The Cruise Arabia Alliance shares how its members are upgrading their port facilities
A winter sun success story in the Arabian Gulf
Sir Bani Yas Island is the Arabian Gulf's first dedicated beach resort with dining venues, watersports and much more

By Rebecca Lambert |

This article was first published in the Autumn/Winter 2016 issue of International Cruise & Ferry Review. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.

Aseason of maiden calls and record-breaking cruise passenger numbers reflects the growing popularity of the Arabian Gulf and Middle East as a winter cruise destination. As the final ships sailed into the docks this summer, marking the end of the 2015-2016 season, port authorities have been reflecting on what has, for many, been their most successful year yet.

“Our 2015-2016 season wrapped up in May with the berthing of Seabourn Cruise Line’s Seabourn Sojourn, the last of 10 ships to arrive in Doha – double the number that docked the year before,” says Hassan Al Ibrahim, chief tourism development officer at Qatar Tourism Authority. “Three of these ships made their maiden voyages to Qatar – Seabourn Sojourn, plus the Japanese Peace Boat and Phoenix Reisen’s Artania – and more than 4,000 tourist visas were issued to cruise passengers with well over two thirds disembarking and visiting Qatar’s tourism landmarks.”

Building on their established strong market positions, both Dubai and Abu Dhabi saw a positive trajectory in ship and passenger numbers too. The former welcomed a third more passengers compared to last season – 541,708 in total – while the latter has now experienced a six-fold increase in cruise tourism arrivals since it began welcoming vessels in 2006. And this growth is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon.

Next season, all ports in the region expect to welcome even more ships and passengers.

“As we strive to bolster Dubai’s position as a top cruise destination, we are aiming towards a further growth of 6% in the 2016-2017 season to bring the total ship tally to 150,” says Jamal Humaid Al Falasi, director of Dubai Cruise Tourism Authority. “We look forward to welcoming around 575,000 passengers to our fascinating city in this coming year.”

Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, looks set to handle 151 calls from 23 ships. “This represents a 9% increase in passengers, but most significantly, includes our highest number of Abu Dhabi originating cruises, with both MSC Cruises’ Fantasia and Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Constellation to make the new Abu Dhabi cruise terminal their winter-sun home, and AIDA Cruises’ AIDAstella to share porting with Dubai,” explains Saeed Al Dhaheri, cruise tourism and city tour development manager at Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi).

Indeed, all members of the Cruise Arabia Alliance (CAA) are reaping the rewards of the port infrastructure, service and destination upgrades they are continuing to make to boost cruise passenger numbers.

Dubai’s Hamdan bin Mohammed Cruise Terminal, created in 2014, remains the world’s largest single cruise facility and has the capacity to handle passenger turnaround of five cruise ships at the same time. The Abu Dhabi Cruise Terminal, which opened in December 2015, has the capability to accommodate two large cruise ships and one smaller vessel. And Qatar’s new Hamad Port in the centre of Doha – set to become fully operational later this year – is helping to bring it into the spotlight as a budding destination for cruise tourism.

“We have worked closely with Qatar’s Port Management Company (Mwani) on a five-year development plan to ensure that the infrastructural enhancements capitalise on the expected growth in the cruise sector,” says Al Ibrahim. “In particular, we have ensured that for next season, Qatar will be able to receive larger ships (above 220m) thanks to the opening of a temporary cruise terminal at the new Hamad Port.

“This year, we are also launching the Doha Port Renewal Project, which will result in a major transformation and tourist attraction in the heart of the capital. Once complete, Doha Port will become the permanent cruise destination for Qatar, and will have a dedicated cruise terminal.”

Infrastructure improvements aside, the region is also making impressive moves to attract more passengers by introducing new locations, itinerary options and shore excursions.

The opening of Sir Bani Yas Island – the Arabian Gulf’s first dedicated beach stopover just off Abu Dhabi’s western coast – is a prime example.

“The desert island day call to Sir Bani Yas Island is just one of many differentiated and diverse shore excursion opportunities available to Abu Dhabi’s cruise passengers,” says Al Dhaheri. “Recognised as the ‘World’s Leading Sustainable Tourism Destination’, this natural island is alive with wildlife and adventure activities, beaches, three five-star boutique hotels and luxury villas, a dedicated water sports centre, purpose-built stables and historical sites.”

Next season, the island is expected to handle 39 stopover calls from MSC Cruises, Costa Cruises, Seabourn Cruise Line and Silversea Cruises.

In Dubai, the tourism centre is working closely with cruise lines to further enhance the selection of exciting itineraries in the Arabian Gulf. As part of these efforts, Thomson Cruises will become the first ever UK-based cruise line to homeport in Dubai later this year, joining the likes of Costa Cruises, AIDA Cruises, Royal Caribbean International, MSC Cruises and TUI Cruises.

“This new cruise excursion will provide passengers with unparalleled opportunities to experience the taste of modern Dubai coupled with the chance to learn more about the United Arab Emirates’ roots and heritage,” explains Al Falasi.

For Qatar, the emphasis has been on spreading the word about what it already has to offer. “The Arabian Gulf is a relatively new destination but we believe that as travellers learn about the new and unique experiences the region offers over traditional routes, cruise liners are becoming more willing to place ports like Doha on their itineraries,” explains Al Ibrahim. “Our efforts have been bearing fruit – most notably that Thomson Cruises will visit the Gulf region for the first time this upcoming season, and the agreement with TUI Cruises that the German cruise liner will be including Qatar in its itineraries for the 2017-2018 season, bringing seven cruise ships with up to 17,500 visitors to the area.”

As they look to the future, all three destinations – along with everybody else involved in CAA – believe that by working together, they can continue to boost cruise tourism in the sector, and strengthen their position as a winter cruise destination.

“Through the CAA, we’re able to create exceptional cruise itineraries that showcase the best of the Gulf’s landscape and attract tourists from around the world,” says Al Ibrahim. “The Arabian Gulf offers an unmatched winter cruise destination, where sunshine, majestic desert landscapes and futuristic cityscapes meet. The success of the alliance in providing this offering is a major proof-point in the argument for increased intra-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) tourism.”

Dubai, which aims to attract over a million maritime tourists per year by 2020, also sees the benefit of working with its GCC counterparts. “The development of Dubai’s destination offering for cruise tourists is not a project in isolation, and so requires us to work hand in hand with key partners towards achieving a unified goal,” says Al Falasi. “The alliance is a synergy of six tourism authorities that continually work to enhance cruise line and cruise visitors’ experiences in the region. Together with the rising demand for varied winter itineraries in particular, this opens up more opportunities to showcase the best of what the region has to offer.”

TCA Abu Dhabi’s Al Dhaheri agrees. “We are aligning with other destinations because the cruise industry requires a regional approach; cruise itineraries cannot rely on one destination alone,” he says. “The goal is to put Abu Dhabi and the Gulf more broadly on par with traditional cruise destinations like the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. A key attribute of this strategy is to differentiate the visitor experience in each of the different Gulf states and at the various ports of call.”

This December, Abu Dhabi is set to host the world’s leading cruise line executives when they meet for the return of the annual Seatrade Middle East Cruise Forum.

“The forum is an opportunity to update the industry on the Emirate’s rapid development, and allows us to present the effectiveness of our coordinated stakeholder approach,” adds Al Dhaheri. “Etihad Airways and Hala Abu Dhabi have been keen supporters of the new cruise terminal at Zayed Port and are playing a significant role flying thousands of visitors into Abu Dhabi to start their journey around the Arabian Gulf. In addition, the airline’s destination management company, Hala Abu Dhabi, has developed strong ground arrangement and shore excursions packages for those incoming guests. Meanwhile, Abu Dhabi Ports has invested significant effort in developing the Sir Bani Yas Island beach proposition. Our tripartite agreement puts us in a very powerful position.”

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