Cruise Industry: Abu Dhabi takes on Dubai as Middle East’s cruise hub

Dubai has invested millions of dollars in cruise infrastructure and is the primary cruise port of the Middle East – Abu Dhabi, the UAE capital, does not intend to take this lying down!

The development of tourism in the Emirate is one of the main pillars of the Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030.

Abu Dhabi’s cruise business plays a crucial part in this development and it is a sector that has been growing rapidly, marking another success story for Abu Dhabi Ports.

In order to support this growth, last year Abu Dhabi Ports commissioned a new permanent cruise terminal building. The design was chosen by HH Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan, National Security Advisor, Vice Chairman of the Executive Council of Abu Dhabi, in July. Shortly afterwards, in the autumn, work started to clear the site and prepare the ground.

The construction has been split into three phases which are being carried out in parallel. At the beginning of January this year, work started to build the mezzanine floor and to strengthen the building’s outer steel frame. The construction uses the framework of an existing warehouse in the interests of sustainability and this essential structural work will be completed by the end of April.

The second phase, which has just begun, involves the new building’s cladding and the start of work on the cruise terminal’s façade and this will be completed in March.

The third phase will be the longest period of construction and is due to start in two weeks’ time. It focuses on the interior of the building. The inside of the new cruise terminal building has been designed to be light and airy, the roof design is a filigree lattice-work taking the UAE’s national symbol – the Ghaf tree as inspiration, and wooden beams throughout the building will remind visitors of the UAE’s traditional dhow sailing vessels.

The interior construction will coincide with the work to build the nearby road access and carparks for local visitors, as well as new dedicated areas for taxis, buses and rental cars for cruise tourists. The new building will be officially launched and operational at the end of this year, in time for the next exciting cruise season.

Abu Dhabi Ports is also in the process of developing another infrastructure project to support the growing cruise industry. The new beach stopover for cruise tourists on Sir Bani Yas Island, off the coast of Abu Dhabi, will be the very first of its kind in the region.

“Abu Dhabi’s cruise business has been growing continuously ever since the first cruise vessels called at Zayed Port. With the new cruise terminal building and the new island stopover on Sir Bani Yas Island, we will significantly enhance the visitor experience and boost Abu Dhabi’s status as a world-class cruise line destination,” says Capt. Mohamed Juma Al Shamisi, CEO, Abu Dhabi Ports.

The most recent passenger figures for the 2014/2015 season confirm the rapid growth and highlight the enormous potential of the Emirate’s cruise business moving forward. While the cruise season 2013/2014 saw around 125,000 passengers and 75 vessels visiting Abu Dhabi, the current season has been the busiest ever, with around 185,000 expected passengers with an increase of 44% and 94 confirmed vessels calls.

In comparison, during 2006/2007 – the UAE capital’s first recognised cruise season – Zayed Port hosted just 29 cruise vessels and almost 36,000 passengers, clearly demonstrating how much the interest from passengers, cruise line operators and travel agents has increased since then.

This season, 15 cruise ships from ten cruise liners will have called at Zayed Port, most of them on a weekly basis. The list of recurrent visits is headed by Mein Schiff 2 and AIDAdiva, followed by Costa NeoRiviera, and Costa Serena

With the Costa Serena, AIDAaura, MSC Orchestra and MS Balmoral, Zayed Port saw four new vessels visiting the Emirate for the first time. The four “maiden callers” arrived in November, December and January and added to the increasing number of cruise ships visiting the Emirate as part of a tour through the Middle East, linking Abu Dhabi with places like Dubai, Bahrain, Muscat, Khorfakkan and Khasab

The biggest cruise liners of the season in terms of passenger capacity were the Costa Serena which has a capacity for 3,700 passengers, MSC Orchestra which can carry up to 3,200 passengers, and Queen Mary 2 which can accommodate a total of 2,600 passengers.

The fact that Queen Mary 2, the famous flagship of the prestigious Cunard Line, and its sister ship Queen Elizabeth are repeat visitors and have for the first time both called at Zayed Port in the same season, underlines Abu Dhabi’s rising status on the world map of cruise tourism.

“This is also supported by the fact that cruise line operators have been sending newer, bigger and more advanced vessels to the Middle East, including Abu

Dhabi, over the past years. Next season, we are expecting the AIDAprima, one of the next generation of 3,250 passenger ‘club ships’ for AIDA Cruises. The AIDAprima is the newest and largest ship ever built for the German cruise line,” adds Al Shamisi.

The growing attraction of the Middle East to cruise tourists is especially visible in Europe and the United Kingdom. A recent survey of the last quarter of 2014 revealed that 57% of the cruise tourists visiting Abu Dhabi were Germans, followed by Italians (12%), with a total of 108 nationalities welcomed at Zayed Port.

What makes cruise destinations like Abu Dhabi so attractive to visitors from the western hemisphere is the safe, stable and welcoming environment that offers year-round sun and a perfect winter holiday location, with pristine beaches and an exotic culture, Arabic design and architecture.

Tourists from Europe and the United Kingdom also appreciate the Gulf region’s rich cultural heritage, especially in places like Abu Dhabi. The Emirate offers an exceptional treasure trove of old monuments, ancient buildings and oases that give insights into the region’s history, while displaying authentic Arabic culture. One of the many examples is the UNESCO World Heritage site in the heartland of Al Ain.

In addition, Abu Dhabi provides numerous sports and leisure activities, ranging from watersports, to golf and shopping tours, to desert safaris, including camel riding, falcon displays and henna artistry.

Until today, the most popular sight-seeing destinations and activities for cruise tourists coming to Abu Dhabi have been the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque,

Ferrari World Abu Dhabi and the various desert safaris, including visits of traditional Arabian themed villages where visitors are invited to experience aspects of traditional Emirati life.

“The response from cruise line operators to our enhanced service offerings is phenomenal and we look forward to taking Abu Dhabi’s cruise business to the next level. We have received some fantastic feedback from cruise passengers and are very confident about Abu Dhabi’s future as the next big cruise hub in the region,” says Al Shamisi.

Alongside its cultural heritage sites, beaches, desert tours and visitor attractions, Abu Dhabi has been famous for its one-of-a-kind tourist sites like Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the Emirates Palace.

Moving forward, the Emirate will also be offering a wide range of attractions in the arts sector, with places like the Louvre Abu Dhabi which will open later this year, Zayed National Museum (due to open in 2016), and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi (due to open in 2017).

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