The recently concluded Seatrade Middle East Cruise Forum revealed bright prospects for cruise tourism in the United Arab Emirates, with Dubai and Abu Dhabi set to welcome 1.5-million cruise visitors by 2020.
Abu Dhabi’s cruise tourism sector in particular is on course for exponential expansion, according to an economic impact and forecasting report by Oxford Economics, commissioned by TCA Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi Ports and Etihad Airways.
According to the report, the Abu Dhabi cruise tourism segment achieved a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.7 per cent in the last five years, and forecasts further sustained growth at a 10.5 per cent CAGR to reach a total of 450,000 cruise passengers for Abu Dhabi alone by 2020, rising to 808,428 in 2025.
This, combined with figures recently released by Dubai Tourism, means that the UAE will account for 6% of global cruise passengers as a destination, putting it among the likes of the Caribbean, Alaska and Eastern Mediterranean.
Growth in Dubai and Abu Dhabi cruise markets
According to Sultan Ahmed bin Sulayem, Chairman and CEO of DP World and Chairman of Ports, Customs and Free Zone Corporation, the aim of receiving one million cruise tourists annually by 2020 is part of a wider Dubai Tourism ambition of increasing overall visitor arrivals to 20-million by the end of the decade.
This cruise season, running from November 2016 to June 2017, Abu Dhabi is set to welcome over 250,000 passengers from 137 calls by 26 ships – an increase of 21 per cent over last year – in a season which runs until early June 2017.
The report findings predict that total direct spending from the cruise sector will increase by 71 per cent to Dh417 million ($113 million) by 2020, from a benchmark of Dh244 million ($66 million) in 2015.
Looking ahead to 2025, this is forecast to double to Dh745 million ($202 million).
Projections are that in this baseline scenario, the number of cruise ships calling at Abu Dhabi will increase to 258 by 2025, and this growth will sustain 2,117 direct and ancillary cruise sector jobs in the emirate.
Abu Dhabi’s burgeoning cruise season will witness three Abu Dhabi originating cruise departures, ten new ‘maiden’ callers and nine regional rotational callers for the forthcoming season – both the highest-ever recorded.
The Dubai cruise market has seen similar growth. More than 600,000 cruise tourists aboard several dozen cruise ships making 157 ship calls will visit Dubai during the current Middle East cruise season starting in November 2016 and ending in June 2017.
Last year, cruise passenger numbers grew by 19 per cent and ship calls increase by 24 per cent compared to the previous year, and this year two new lines – Norwegian Cruise Line and Thomson Cruises – are making their debut in the Middle East cruise market.
Thomson Cruises is the first ever British cruise line to homeport in Dubai. It will sail 12 roundtrip Dubai cruises during the season, bringing an estimated 25,000 cruise tourists to the UAE.
With India already one of the largest source markets for cruise tourists to the UAE, alongside China and Europe, Cruise Arabia – a unified partnership that brings together six GCC tourism authorities with the aim of promoting the region as a preferred winter destination for cruise travel – is looking to expand its reach to the Indian Subcontinent.
The proximity of the Indian Subcontinent presents a good opportunity to work on itineraries originating from the Middle East, for the 12 to 14 day duration trips in particular.
The Cruise Arabia membership currently includes Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi); Bahrain Tourism & Exhibitions Authority; Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority (SCTDA); Oman Ministry of Tourism (Oman Tourism) and Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA).
It is spearheaded by Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (Dubai Tourism) and was launched in 2013.
Celebrity Cruises, making its debut in the Middle East cruise market this winter, will be returning to homeport in the Arabian Gulf in 2017/18 and 2018/19 according to Christopher Allen, vice-president, Global Deployment & Itinerary Planning, Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises & Azamara Club Cruises.
Celebrity Cruises is owned by the world’s second-largest cruise company, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, which also owns Azamara Club Cruises and the flagship brand Royal Caribbean International, which also returned to the Middle East market this season.
The three Royal Caribbean brands will collectively chalk up 50 Arabian calls this season, rising from five calls in 2014/15 and will make a record 29 calls in India this winter, many originating from the Gulf.
Challenges for Middle East cruise market
According to Mubarak Al Shamisi, Director of Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau, Muslim cruise passengers are a source market of great potential for Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
‘We have identified the ‘Halal Cruising’ segment as a new source market to support our ambitions to grow Abu Dhabi’s cruise passenger numbers to over 800,000 by 2025,” he said during the Seatrade Middle East Cruise Forum.
“We believe our culture, heritage and product base has great appeal with the Muslim traveller and the expansion of this product mix into the cruise segment is a natural progression to attract Muslim passengers from our key cruise markets, and stimulate regional and home-grown demand for Abu Dhabi cruises,” he said.
Abu Dhabi’s international cruise tourism passengers are predominately sourced from Germany, the United Kingdom and France, which have a combined Muslim population of over nine million people, while Dubai is more popular with Indian and Chinese cruise tourists.
‘When you factor in the US $55 billion value of the Muslim travel market from the UAE and our closest GCC neighbours, the potential is clear to see,” he added. “Our challenge is to work with all concerned to ensure that cruise lines develop the product, that this product is available to purchase through the right channels, and that it appeals to the particular travel needs of the Muslim traveller.”
The value of the global Muslim tourism market is estimated to be worth US $151 billion, rising to US $243 billion by 2021, according to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, with the cruise segment thus far tapping only a fraction of the market.
Al Shamisi outlining four elements of a strategic approach to develop demand for the sector. “In partnership with international cruise lines and the travel community, we intend to deliver against priority areas to ensure our cruise products are well placed to meet specific Muslim demands on a number of fronts including food and beverage, segmented family and gender-specific products and provision of prayer facilities,” he said.
Other challenges to the growth and competitiveness of the Arabian Gulf as a cruise destination were also highlighted, including the need to diversify shore excursions at various Middle East cruise ports. Many cruise lines, for instance, offer mosque visits, desert safaris and dhow trips in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Muscat.
There is also a need to make the flight to cruise experience as seamless as possible for incoming cruise tourists, an area where Cruise Arabia is in close partnership with the UAE’s two main airlines, Etihad and Emirates.