Opinion: Middle East cruise industry should not try compete with Caribbean

Some observers have suggested the Middle East may be gearing up to take on the Caribbean as a major cruise destination, but such observations seem short-sighted given the significant strategic geopolitical advantage the Caribbean enjoys…

In 2013, more than 400,000 cruise tourists visited the United Arab Emirates according to Dubai Cruise Tourism, a division of the Emirate’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, while it was recently announced that the UAE and Omani governments would be joining forces to promote the industry in the region.

Some observers have suggested the Middle East may be gearing up to take on the Caribbean as a major cruise destination, but such observations seem short-sighted given the significant strategic geopolitical advantage the Caribbean enjoys in that it is a stable, exotic and by-and-large mild-weathered location on the doorstep of the North American cruise market, which, according to Cruise Market Watch accounted for US $20-billion in revenue, or 60.5% of the global cruise market in 2012.


The Middle East, however, has significant potential as a culture-oriented alternative to the ‘booze cruise’ nature of much of the cruise tourism in the Caribbean, and this appeared to be something that Abu Dhabi Ports Company was looking to exploit during a recent FAM trip organized for cruise line executives on the sidelines of the Seatrade Middle East Cruise Forum in the capital. ADPC, the master developer of ports and industrial zones hosted a familiarisation tour around Zayed Port, home to the capital’s dedicated cruise terminal, which is currently being expanded in anticipation of strong growth in the coming years. “In the past six years the number of cruise liners calling at Zayed Port has more than doubled,” said Mohamed Juma Al Shamisi, Acting CEO of ADPC. “The city centre port is in an ideal location and we have an amazing range of attractions on offer, making Abu Dhabi a unique and very special destination and a real highlight of any Gulf cruise itinerary.” Cruise line executives were shown round the port’s temporary cruise terminal before being taken on a tour of the city’s attractions that are easily accessible from the port.

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The collaboration between Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Oman was also announced as part of the Sea Trade Middle East Cruise Forum. Dubai too is investing heavily in its cruise industry, with a new 27,000 sqm cruise terminal being built that will enable the city to accommodate five ships simultaneously and process 16,000 passengers per day. All three authorities foresee impressive growth in the local cruise industry. “The 2012-13 cruise season reached new heights. We are proud to announce 93 confirmed ship calls this season, which include 63 home porting ship calls: 27 from Costa, 17 from Aida, and 19 from MSC ships. We’re also delighted to welcome seven maiden ship calls, a reflection of Dubai’s burgeoning appeal as a cruise hub,” Helal Saeed Almarri, director General of Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, said during the Sea Trade Forum.

Mohammed Al Mannaei, director, Mina Rashid, DP World, UAE Region, said: “Dubai is fast becoming a leading cruise destination in the Middle East”, but in fact Dubai already is the leading cruise destination in the Middle East. It is currently the only city being used as a turnaround port by any cruise line and is also the entry and exit point to the region for the vast majority of foreign cruise tourists to the region. The major stumbling block to future development of the industry is the lack of a pan-regional visa system, similar to the visa rules adopted by the Schengen Zone European Union countries. “A Gulf-wide cruise visa would be ideal to attract more tourists due to the entry and exit into multiple ports, leading  to reduced costs and less processing time,” says Grant Holmes, CEO of Progress International, a cruise consultancy. “The Gulf is a promising market but a clear short to medium-term strategy is needed soon from all the Gulf states after forming an alliance to work together to promote the region.”

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It isn’t only foreign cruise tourists that the UAE and Oman are looking to attract to the region, according to a recent announcement by the three tourism departments involved, the two countries also want to promote cruising as a viable and comparatively cheap holiday option to residents of the region. Currently, the Middle East and Africa account for just 0.6%, or 41,000, of the total 21-million people who take a cruise each year. The Middle East’s share of that figure is expected to grow, however, with Royal Caribbean, the market leader in the region, having announced through their Dubai-based offices, Royal Caribbean Arabia, that cruise bookings from residents of the Middle East have increased by more than 10%. Exciting times therefore lay ahead for the Middle East cruise industry, but it will never be like the Caribbean, and should not compete on that basis.

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