Cruise Industry

Dubai is reopening its cruise sector but it won’t be plain sailing to recovery

The 2020/21 cruise season has gotten the go-ahead from Dubai Tourism authorities, but it’s unlikely to look anything like the bumper season seen last year.

Dubai will reopen its cruise season this coming December

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Dubai is following Europe’s lead and reopening its cruise sector, according to statements made by Helal Saeed Almarri, director general of Dubai Tourism during a virtual workshop held by P&O Marinas, a DP World company.

Almarri told participants of the webinar, held in collaboration with Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, Dubai Tourism, and Emirates airline, that Dubai was “open for business and looking forward to receiving tourists for the new cruise season by the fall”.

“The precautionary measures and safety protocols that are being formulated for cruise tourism will be implemented when cruise ships arrive in Dubai during the forthcoming season,” said Almarri.

Helal Saeed Almarri, director general of Dubai Tourism

“We can assure cruise tourists of the highest global safety standards at every stage of their travel journey from the time they disembark in Dubai to the point they depart from our cruise terminals,” he added.

The director general of Dubai Tourism said that the organization has also put together an impressive excursion itinerary as part of efforts to position the city as the cruise tourism destination of choice for international cruise travellers.

He didn’t provide details on the safety protocols that would be put in place, but they are likely to resemble those rolled out by authorities in Europe as Italy and Germany restart cruises in a limited capacity.

Cruise passengers are likely to have to undergo COVID testing prior to boarding in Dubai

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These include rapid COVID testing prior to boarding (Dubai has pioneered a non-invasive DPI test that provides results in minutes, as well as a saliva test that has been shown to be 90% accurate thus far).

In Europe, cruise lines MSC Cruises and Costa Cruises have implemented organized shore excursions that eliminate contact between passengers and the public, and although Dubai Tourism hasn’t provided details, its likely that similar measures will be mandatory in the UAE.

MSC Cruises has taken one of the strictest approaches to containing the virus, even removing passengers from the ship if they’re suspected of having interacted with members of the public.

Already the Department of Tourism in Abu Dhabi has suggested the idea of having tourist ‘safe zones’ for cruise tourists, taking a different approach to Dubai, which reopened its doors to international tourists in July amid strict health and safety measures.

Dubai launched the Dubai Assured stamp, a compliance programme – which is also applicable to the cruise industry – to certify and recognise hotels, tourism and retail establishments and attractions that have implemented all public health protocols.

The difference in approach to containing the virus has led to Abu Dhabi regulating travel between itself and the other six emirates that make up the UAE. Visitors to the city need to present a negative COVID test result taken within the past 48 hours.

MSC Cruises (pictured) and AIDA Cruises have confirmed they will be home-porting in Abu Dhabi and Dubai for the coming cruise season

If passengers boarding cruise ships in Dubai undertake COVID screening prior to boarding, and if the ship calls in Abu Dhabi as the first port of call, this will remove that hurdle.

However, major challenges remain for the Dubai cruise sector, which unlike Europe relies overwhelmingly on fly-cruise tourists (Americans, Europeans, Chinese and Indian passengers who fly to Dubai and board the ship at the Dubai Cruise Terminal).

The risks associated with flying to a foreign city, only to be turned away from the ship due to a positive test result, might put a lot of passengers off. If travel insurance won’t cover the cost of flights, hotel stays (and holiday days taken), it might be seen as too great a risk.

Almarri expressed his confidence in the resilience of Dubai as a cruise destination

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It’s important to note that all of this is conjecture at this point, as cruise officials in neither Dubai or Abu Dhabi (the two primary embarkation ports in the region) have given any clear indication yet of the anti-COVID measures that will be put in place for cruise ships.

What is clear is that it will be a potentially long road to recovery for the Dubai cruise sector, which was on track to hit 1-million cruise tourists for the coming cruise season (before the pandemic struck).

The cruise industry globally was hit particularly badly by the fallout from the pandemic, with all major cruise lines suspending operations globally in March.

During the same month, a coronavirus scare aboard a cruise ship outbound from Dubai prompted authorities to suspend the season.

Only two cruise lines (MSC and AIDA) have confirmed that they’re planning to return to Dubai, representing just 20% of the city’s pre-COVID capacity. A further three (Costa, TUI and Azamara) have Dubai roundtrip Arabian Gulf cruises scheduled, but haven’t publicly confirmed they’re returning to the city.

What’s certain is that the city will definitely recover as a major cruise destination and winter homeport, the only question that remains to be answered is how long it will take.

“The cruise sector in Dubai has always shown great potential and sustainable year-on-year growth,” said Almarri.

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