Cruise Industry: What is needed for the extension of the Middle East cruise season?

At the recent Seatrade Middle East Cruise Forum in Dubai, a panel of experts discussed the possibility of extending the Middle East cruise season out of Dubai.

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The discussion came on the back of an announcement by DP World that it was offering 50% off on port charges at Dubai Cruise Terminal for the months of October and April in the current 2018/2019 season.

Omar Sharif Al Marzooqi, manager, cruise business and operations at Mina Rashid, DP World, said the Dubai-based port operator was hoping to get cruise lines to homeport in Dubai for longer.

“The discount will apply to all cruise ships making port calls in Dubai during October or May,” he said. “The current Middle East cruise season generally runs from November to April, and we’d like to see cruise lines homeporting in the region longer.”

Al Marzooqi was part of a panel that included Youssef AlKhan, director of marketing and tourism promotion, Bahrain Tourism & Exhibitions Authority; Steven Young, director port services and government affairs Carnival UK; Virgin Voyages’ vice president of itinerary & destination development Craig Milan; Jean-Pierre Joubert, shorex director port development and shoreside activities MSC Cruises and Tine Olemann, director port ops, shorex and ground ops for TUI Cruises.

The panel generally agreed that while the prospects for extending the Middle East cruise season out of Dubai by one to two months were strong, the likelihood of a year-round Dubai cruise season was extremely slim.

“There just aren’t enough events around which to build a case for cruise tourists to come to Dubai and do an Arabian Gulf cruise,” said Jean-Pierre Joubert, shorex director port development and shoreside activities MSC Cruises. He referenced the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and other global events hosted by the UAE as examples.

“If you look at the main events in Dubai such as the Food Festival, International tennis tournaments, the Rugby Sevens they are all taking place in the winter months here,” he said, adding that while MSC Cruises is operating year-round in the Mediterranean and seasonally in the Middle East, there need to be more reasons to draw tourists to the Middle East in the summer months.

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He suggested better collaboration with the local tourist boards to expedite more opportunities into the summer. He also told the audience to look out for some interesting announcements regarding MSC and the 2020 World Cup in Qatar.

Youssef AlKhan, director of marketing and tourism promotion, Bahrain Tourism & Exhibitions Authority agreed, saying that water-based experiences on shore excursions have become more popular during the last five years.

“The market has changed now: if you look at the region in summer it used to be devoid of tourists. Whilst it is hot the situation has changed in last five years with land-based visitors coming here and enjoying themselves,” he said, adding that Bahrain has launched a deep-pearl diving experience for the summer months.

Despite this, he said that starting the season in October or possibly September at the earliest and running roundtrip Dubai cruises through to May could be a more realistic working proposition than year-round cruises during the extreme heat of the summer months in the Gulf.

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Chris Hayman, chairman of Seatrade, leading the discussion, said that an extension of the cruise season out of Dubai was realistic, because it’s growth mirrored that of other winter cruise destinations.

“It is an interesting question,” Steven Young, director port services and govt affairs Carnival UK, said in response. “At P&O Cruises we have done off-season cruising to the North Cape. If we can show yields for ships deployed in the Gulf is more than yields in the shoulder seasons of other regions then I am sure it would be carefully considered.” Young had said previously during the Seatrade Middle East Cruise Forum that net yields on Arabian Gulf cruises were a challenge for Carnival Corporation, which owns P&O Cruises, coming to the Middle East for the first time in January 2019, and Costa Cruises, which has been cruising seasonally in the Middle East for several years.

Young added, however, that as the Middle East itself grows as a source market, along with India, this situation will change significantly.

“The cruise industry is one that chases ticket revenue,” said Craig Milan, vice president of itinerary & destination development at Virgin Voyages. “If there were the right opportunities during the shoulders to stay here it would be a favourable option in the Gulf.”

Nalini Gupta, md Lotus Destinations, gsa of Costa Cruises India, made a point of interest during the discussion, saying that if cruise lines shortened their Arabian Gulf cruise itineraries to 3 or 4 days instead of the current 7-night roundtrip cruises, and extended these shorter cruise itineraries into the months of October and May “then numbers from India will soar”.

It seems then that for an extension of the Middle East cruise season to become a reality, two primary challenges must be overcome, the Middle East and nearby markets such as India must be grown as source markets, and more unique and interesting shore excursions must be offered by the tour operators at each port during the shoulder period of October and May.

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