The roundtrip Dubai cruise market is growing at a rate not seen since the days when Royal Caribbean followed Costa Cruises into the Arabian Gulf market back in the early 2000s.
More than 600,000 cruise passengers boarded cruise ships in Dubai during the 2017-18 cruise season, and tourism officials in the country believe they’re on-track to welcome more than a million by 2020.
With warm, sunny winters, gorgeous beaches, an ancient and fascinating culture, and some of the most impressive malls and hotels in the world, MSC Cruises, Costa Cruises, AIDA, TUI, and Celebrity Cruises now offer regular cruising seasons in the Arabian Gulf.
MSC Cruises and AIDA Cruises are bringing their brand new, largest cruise ships to the region in 2020, and a spate of cruise lines from P&O to Pullmantur and Cruise & Maritime Voyages have announced maiden cruise seasons in the Arabian Gulf out of Dubai, or inaugural port calls in the region this coming season.
So what is all the fuss about? Why are cruise passengers flocking to the region (almost in the millions), when just several thousand were doing so less than 15-years ago?
These are the eight main reasons Dubai cruises in the Arabian Gulf have become so popular:
One – The Weather
Between November and March every year, Dubai and the wider Arabian Gulf region has some of the best weather in the world.
The Burj Al Arab Hotel from the public ‘Jumeirah Beach’.
According to Steven Young, Vice President, shore and port operations, Carnival UK, it is “one of the most stable climates of any cruise destination”.
Even in January, usually the ‘coldest’ month of the year, the Arabian Gulf remains warm enough for sunbathing during the day, but cool enough for sightseeing.
At night, a slight chill in the air makes snuggling on the balcony overlooking Dubai Cruise Terminal all the more inviting. Prolonged periods of rain are unusual, but the occasional two or three-hour downpour has been known to play havoc with shore excursions.
Wadi beds in bloom during winter months.
During this time of year though, the wadis (riverbeds and mountain gullies, dry most of the year) are in bloom with greenery, and on some of the shore excursions in Oman, where almost every single Gulf cruise calls, you can swim in the freshwater rock pools.
The cruise season starts in late October, when it’s still quite hot, and runs through to the end of March, when it begins to warm up again, especially during the day. If the notorious Middle Eastern heat is a big ‘turn off’ for you, you’d be well-advised to cruise in January or February, when the Dubai cruise season provides the very best of both.
Two – It’s affordable
Dubai is one of the most expensive cities in the world for residents, but for cruise passengers it’s extremely affordable.
In fact, it would be cheaper to live aboard a cruise ship for a year than in Dubai. The quality of everything in Dubai is extremely high – the food in restaurants is outstanding, the service at even the budget hotels is on-par with what you’d find at five star resorts in Europe or North America.
Staying for a week in Dubai at a five star hotel will be pricey, but a cruise gives you access to this without paying top dollar.
MSC Splendida alongside at Dubai Cruise Terminal.
A 7-night cruise aboard Costa Mediterranea or MSC Splendida for example will cost around US $700 per person for a balcony cabin. That’s full board, with children cruising free if they share the cabin.
That price doesn’t include flights, but it still adds up to a very reasonably priced, medium-haul family holiday. You can get around cheaply within Dubai and the various cruise ports you’ll visit, such as Muscat, Bahrain and Abu Dhabi with free buses from the ports to the shopping malls, ride Dubai’s swanky new Metro monorail, or do your sightseeing on the cheap on the hop-on, hop-off Big Bus Tours.
Three – Cruise & Stay
If you take advantage of any of the pool day shore excursions at one of the big resorts in Dubai, such as Atlantis on The Palm or Anantara, you’ll definitely want to come back for more.
And you can add a resort stay for less than what you’d pay if you were visiting Dubai separately from a cruise.
Staying in one of the iconic hotels in Dubai is an excellent start or finish to a cruise holiday, using the hotel as a base from which to explore the city before or after your cruise.
For U.K. passengers, tour operators like Virgin Holidays offer competitive deals that include two days at Atlantis The Palm, combined with a week aboard one of the cruise liners sailing out of Dubai, usually Celebrity, Costa or MSC.
Atlantis Hotel on The Palm.
Set at the top of the Palm, the first of Dubai’s artificial islands, Atlantis offers everything from a 42-acre water park (with a slide that catapults you through a shark pool to dolphin encounters) and restaurants designed by celebrity chefs such as Nobo Matsuhisa (Japanese), Giorgio Locatelli (Italian) and Michel Rostang (Parisian).
MSC Cruises also offers a cruise-and-stay option for its Abu Dhabi departures. Abu Dhabi has its own attractions: the new developments on Yas Island, which include the Grand Prix circuit and the world’s first Ferrari theme park, Ferrari World, as well as the Abu Dhabi Grand Mosque, the largest in the world.
Four – Mall capital of the world
Proportionate to the population, Dubai has more, and bigger, malls than any other city in the world. This is a city devoted to shopping, built on an Emirati culture that, whether a good thing or not, is 100% in love with the high-life.
There’s the more traditional low-key, old-style shopping in the souks (local markets) in the old town part of Dubai.
Here, whole alleyways are devoted to the soft, deep yellow 18- and 21-carat gold for which the region is famed, there’s even a dedicated Gold Souq, where jewellery can be bought at extremely competitive prices if you know how to haggle and can hold your ground.
There’s also the lovely old market in Muscat, Oman, where the scent of incense wafts through the labyrinth of ancient shops.
Dancing fountains, waterfalls and the aquarium at Dubai Mall.
Most cruise passengers are drawn like moths to a flame to the new centers like Dubai’s Mall of the Emirates and Dubai Mall or Abu Dhabi’s Marina Mall.
These malls are so vast and so lavish they dwarf anything in London or New York, with all the top designer brands on display and some great pricing.
Setting itself apart, Mall of the Emirates is built around the world’s longest indoor ski slope, and it has real snow, with real snowfalls, while Dubai Mall has an Olympic-sized ice rink and one of the world’s biggest aquariums.
Five – Iconic architecture
The Gulf region was just a collection of dusty backwater trading ports until less than a generation ago. Dubai was a pearl diving centre, for example, with no actual harbor until 1970.
These are cities that have been built almost from scratch in just thirty to forty years. As such, the visual ‘ancient history’ on display in Europe or India is missing (no Eiffel Tower, no Taj Mahal), but it makes this region rich in visual experiences. It has some of the most iconic modern architecture in the world.
The Palm Jumeirah, Dubai.
Dubai is home to the Burj Al Arab, the tallest building in the world, with the largest dancing fountains in the world, there is the Dubai Frame, with expansive views of new and old Dubai (complete with a glass floor several hundred feet above the ground!).
Souq Madinat, Dubai
There’s the Souq Madinat, the modern mall that beautifully emulates a traditional souq, connected to a five-star resort, with Venician style waterways and gondalas gliding among coffe shops and eateries. Abu Dhabi has the Grand Mosque, the Louvre Abu Dhabi and Yas Island.
Six – Outdoor lifestyle
If you love the outdoors, the Arabian Gulf is for you.
Getting out of the cities on excursions is easy, to wadis, desert safaris, wildlife encounters at Dubai Safari Park, one of the largest and best-designed zoos in the world, or through the Game Reserve on Sir Bani Yas Island off Abu Dhabi (a favorite port call of ours).
Game safari at Dubai Safari Park, camel back riding in the desert, dune bashing on offer for cruise tourists in Dubai.
In Oman there are 4×4 excursions in Oman through mountains and wadis (something the locals love doing, too) or beach days at some of the Emirates’ coastal resorts with snorkeling and water sports. From Dubai and Abu Dhabi, too, you can go on desert excursions where you can try sand-skiing, camel-riding and have dinner in a Bedouin tent.
Seven – Accessible
Dubai is one of the most well-connected cities in the world in terms of flights. Emirates flies six times daily from London, for example, and three times daily from New York.
British Airways and Virgin also fly from Heathrow and Gatwick, while Emirates flies from Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow. Gulf Air serves Bahrain (with a huge network of onward connections) from various regional airports.
Finally, Etihad will get you to Abu Dhabi or Dubai in style from Dublin, London and Manchester. Then there are the various direct flights from all the major European cities, especially Germany and Italy, two of the largest cruise markets for Dubai cruises after the UK and North America.
Eight – Modern yet exotic
The Arabian Gulf region is quite westernized (to varying degrees depending on the city). Dubai is by far the most cosmopolitan, modern and western city in the region, while just an hour’s drive down the coast to Ajman or Sharjah, you find cities that are far more traditionally minded (no alcohol is served, for example, but women don’t have to ‘cover up’).
This is part of what makes the region wonderful for a traveler, there is a range of experiences and encounters to be had, but it also makes it a carefree holiday destination for those who want to come for a party and also get a taste of the Arab culture.
View from Barasti Bar at Mina Seyahi Hotel.
From a table in Barasti Bar at the Mena Sayahi Hotel, for example, you look out over some of the largest yachts in the world while the call to prayer echoes out over the water. Westernised it may be, but Dubai remains a city where the Arabic traditions and the influence of Islam runs deep.
You can visit the camel market at the inland town of Al Ain if you’re in either Dubai or Abu Dhabi on a Thursday or Friday; although this isn’t a typical cruise ship tour, there are countless, excellent local tour operators in every port who will arrange affordable, private excursions.
Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, Abu Dhabi.
Ancient pursuits like falconry and horsemanship aren’t just for the tourists, they’re still practiced for real, although mainly as spectator sports. And, although you won’t get to experience it much on a cruise, the ‘locals’ in the Gulf are some of the most hospitable people in the world.
They are genuinely friendly and fascinating to talk to, and will go out of their way to help (Sheikh Mohammed, the Ruler of Dubai, recently helped three tourists pull their car out the sand in the desert).