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Cruise Tourism: Unmatched Opportunities

Ashok Kumar, MD, Cruise Master LLC
“Cruising is one of the safest modes of transportation. People should wipe away perceptions of the Titanic accident as it took place over a 110 years ago. This is a long time and a lot of things have changed over the years”

‘Travel is therapy’ – this is such a true statement in every form. Travelling is not just restricted to flights, road trips, walking expeditions but goes beyond to encompass many more facets. Among the many is that of cruising, the much-talked-about but yet unexplored option of a vacation. If we have to just go by the statistics provided by the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) in their report ‘State of the cruise industry outlook 2017’, it is reported that CLIA global ocean cruise passenger numbers are expected to touch 25.8 million by the end of 2017. Going further the 2015 Global Economic Impact states that there were 23 million passengers resulting in a US$117 billion total output worldwide. These are huge numbers and potential. The report further stated that demand for cruising increased by 62% in the last 10 years (2005-15) with cruise passengers mainly travelling from US, UK, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Canada, Brazil, China and Australia. The Middle East interestingly does not feature in the destinations mentioned either inbound or outbound, so there is a market out there waiting to be explored. Despite substantial efforts being put in by respective cruise players and cruise companies, the awareness and its end result still stand short.

Regional Overview

Going back over a decade to understand cruising as a concept, Ashok Kumar, MD, Cruise Master LLC explains that the concept of cruising was limited. He goes on to explain, “if we have to look back to the 1990s, the concept of cruising was very American. A very small section, who were aware, mostly knew about the Big Red Boat which had Looney Tunes characters on-board and Carnival Cruises for its three to four-day cruises in Bahamas. There were very few ships in Europe that too with a very limited sailing window.  It was only post 9/11, that the situation changed wherein cruise companies began to look beyond the US and Canada. Going by memory, the first port of call in the region in all probability could be by QE2 (Cunard Line) which has done around the world voyages around 25 times and used Dubai as port or call or turn around the port.”

Noura Rashid Al Dhaheri, Cruise Terminal Manager, Abu Dhabi Ports and Tourism and Culture Authority
“Abu Dhabi’s cruise sector has witnessed tremendous growth in the past years. Since 2014, we have continued to see an exponential increase in cruise visitors from 145,000 to close to 300,000, double the number in only three years”

“If we have to evaluate cruising out of UAE, there have been several attempts by different cruise companies to home port in Dubai for the winter season including Star Cruises. However, the company that managed to successfully kick off the Arabian Gulf Cruises was Costa Cruises, which have been very consistent and sometimes berthed two ships in the region. To the extent, the company even had a christening ceremony for one of the ships at Port Rashid in Dubai,” adds Kumar.

Kumar further adds that due to weather conditions, cruises out of Dubai is limited from December to mid-April. During the season, cruise lines consistently home porting their ships in UAE are Costa Cruises, MSC, AIDA and TUI.  Royal Caribbean / Celebrity Cruises also have been keeping a ship on and off.  In addition, there are several cruise lines which use Dubai as a port of call for their world voyages/repositioning cruises – Cunard, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Norwegian Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn and Silverseas to name a few.

Despite the limitations in numbers, the two countries that have proactively promoted the concept of cruising has undoubtedly been – UAE (Abu Dhabi and Dubai) and Oman. This is evident from statistics which state that Dubai welcomed over 625,000 cruise tourists during the 2016-2017 season, reflecting an increase of over 15% percent when compared to the 2015-16 season. The 2017-18 cruise season looks optimistic with the expectation of 115 luxury ships from 22 ocean-sailing cruise lines to berth at the Mina Rashid terminal. Giving an overview of Abu Dhabi Ports and Tourism and Culture Authority perspective, Noura Rashid Al Dhaheri, Cruise Terminal Manager said: “Abu Dhabi’s cruise sector has witnessed spectacular growth in the past years. Since 2014, we have continued to see an exponential increase in cruise visitors from 145,000 to close to 300,000, double the number in only three years. The emirate recorded the highest cruise visitor peak in season 2016-2017, which has resulted in extending the season until June 2017 for the first time ever. With an increase in the number of visitors, we started seeing a variety of tourists coming from—Germany and UK topping the list followed by Italy, Russia, The Netherlands, USA, and Spain among many others.”

Salim Al Mamari, Director General of Tourism Promotion, Oman
“The number of cruise ships calling at Omani ports has gone up in recent times. During the last season, Khasab Port welcomed 59 ships, Port Sultan Qaboos received 152 cruise ships, whereas Salalah Port received 34 cruise ships”

On a similar note, Oman too has witnessed increased numbers in terms of cruise passengers. As Salim Al Mamari, Director General of Tourism Promotion, Oman explains: “Official estimates by the National Centre for Statistics and Information report that the cruise tourism industry has grown by over 16.8% as of September 2017 compared to 2016. The number of cruise ships calling at Omani ports has also gone up in recent times during the 2016-2017 season –Khasab Port welcomed 59 ships, Port Sultan Qaboos received 152 cruise ships, whereas Salalah Port received 34 cruise ships.”

Qatar too has had its fair share of cruise tourist with the past season recording a year-on-year increase of over 1,000% in the number of arriving passengers. While in 2015 Qatar received 4,000 tourists, the number grew multi-fold and is expected to touch 60,000 in 2017. The goal is to touch 500,000 passengers by 2022.

While the numbers have been showing an upward graph, the general view in the industry is that cruising as vacationing concept is still yet to reach its full potential.

Packaged Tour vs Cruising

Having understood the potential in terms of global and regional growth, we now try to understand what differentiates a normal vacation from a cruise vacation. The answer as Lakshmi Durai, Chief Executive Officer, Travel Matrix (Middle East Representative for Celebrity Cruises) explains is: “A cruise vacation is quite different from a holiday package. Cruise passengers can visit multiple destinations without having to unpack more than once. They wake up in a new destination every day.”

Brendan Lowe from Imagine Cruising puts it in perspective stating that on a typical seven-night cruise, passengers get to visit five different destinations. The inclusive nature of cruising is the next advantage – food – variety of entertainment and activities – all in one place.”

Lakshmi Durai, CEO, Travel Matrix
“Celebrity Cruises will have the Celebrity Constellation coming to the Arabian Gulf for her second winter season in 2017-18. This will be a nine-night sailing itineraries within UAE and Oman”

In addition, for those who do not want the hassle of booking multiple fares, embarkation ports have been strategically placed within driving distance for most vacationers. This prospect is very appealing for cost-conscious travellers. Price-shopping for a cruise is another advantage and can be an eye-opening experience, simply because it is far less expensive than many people think.

The Road-Blocks

Being a long-standing cruise player, Kumar feels that the road blocks aren’t many but it depends on the cruise companies and their efforts on promoting the cruise products. Some of the factors according to Kumar are people’s perception of safety and motion-sickness which divert people from opting for this holiday option. However, one needs to understand that it is one of the safest place for holidays. Another factor is a perception issue when people think of cruises, the first thought that comes to mind is that of the Titanic. However, they need to realize that the incident occurred over 100 years ago and things have far moved on from then. One also needs to note that the cruise ship industry has not had any major accidents in the magnitude of the Titanic.

If we have to understand the demand for Arabian Gulf for the domestic market, Kumar explains, it is a fact that UAE does not have a senior market, unlike other countries. Being expat-dominated, people on retirement return back to their home country. Also, they have been to most of the places in the Arabian Gulf as part of their short break-aways. If we take the local market into consideration, the seniors love to take their full families which means children and grandchildren. This limits cruising to only during school breaks.

The last factor being considered according to Kumar is an adoption of short-break cruises if you see the nearest port of call from Dubai is Singapore. If one has to take a short-break cruise in Asia, the flying time to Singapore is around eight hours so it is not a viable option. Looking towards Europe, if you are looking at the closest point, it is either Venice, Rome or Barcelona for embarkation or disembarkation. In this case, flying time from Dubai is around 6-7 hours so even here taking a short-break cruise is not feasible. The best option would be a seven-night cruise. One needs to understand that the longer the cruise, the better the experience.

Destination Development

Brendan Lowe from Imagine Cruising
“The advantages of cruising is that a typical seven night cruise offers passengers a visit to five different destinations. The inclusive nature of cruising is the next advantage coupled with food and variety of entertainment and activities – all in one place”

The potential of cruising is being understood but the industry still needs a shot in the arm in order to get the numbers right. There have been several developments across destination in the region to push for an increased number of cruise tourist and cruise lines to berth here. As Al Dhaheri says, “there was a recent co-signed agreement with Abu Dhabi Airports (ADAC) to be the first in the region to provide passengers with airline check-in counters at Abu Dhabi Cruise Terminal. This, of course, complements existing offerings of luggage claim area, VIP lounge, and many other amenities.”

Oman, on the other hand, is undergoing extensive development to boost this segment as Al Mamari puts it, the Government of Oman is looking at upgrading facilities at ports across Oman – including at Port Sultan Qaboos, Khasab and Salalah Port. Recently, the Ministry of Transport and Communications (MoTC) announced that it plans to develop Khasab Port with help of private investors and has already finalised setting up a four-star hotel as part of the port’s development. Similar developments are underway at other ports across the Sultanate with the goal to attract even more visitors over the coming years.

Ras Al Khaimah has also identified cruise tourism as a key pillar in its future development strategy as envisioned by the ruler His Highness Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qassami. The port has already completed some major works and refurbishments and will be capable of handling luxury cruise ships by early January 2018. The terminal building is also currently undergoing a full internal transformation from a previously functional passenger ferry terminal to an efficient boutique cruise passenger terminal, with a planned opening of February 2018. The facilities being added include facial recognition CCTV, luggage and personal baggage X-Ray machines and metal detectors which will be installed by December 2017.  Eight new E-gates and eight immigration officer desks will also be added the same month.

Dubai too has its fair share of plans with the launch of Dubai Harbour, a new destination planned in the Mina Seyahi area and will feature a second cruise terminal. Plans to build a first terminal were unveiled in January this year but the capacity is now set to double enabling two terminals to accommodate 1.2m passengers annually.

Cruise On a Platter

Achille Staiano, Head of Commercial Services, MSC Cruises
“MSC Cruises as a company has grown 800% in its first 10 years (reaching 1.8 million passengers in 2016) and is now well on its way to nearly triple in capacity by 2026”

The developments of cruise terminals and ease of passenger experience is just the first step in scratching the tip of the iceberg. There is a lot more work that is yet to be done in terms of awareness, brand positioning and appealing to the consumer to take a cruise vacation. Despite all the challenges, the cruise liners are launching new products and itineraries for this region.

Celebrity Cruises will have the Celebrity Constellation coming to the Arabian Gulf for her second winter season in 2017-18. This will be a nine-night sailing itineraries within UAE and Oman in addition to longer sailings visiting some of ports in India. We will also have a signature sailing starting on the 19 December 2017 from Abu Dhabi sailing to India via Oman and she will be docked in Dubai for New Year eve fireworks before returning to Abu Dhabi. There are also expanded vacations in the Galapagos by adding more ships and providing all-inclusive packages. There are four new ships being built in Edge Class. Celebrity Edge, the first ship in Edge class will enter service by December 2018, with first winter sailings in the Caribbean. The ship is designed completely in 3-D and features expanded staterooms, ship-climbing Magic Carpet platform and new suites.

Imagine Cruising is offering an exclusive five night Costa cruise departing Dubai from December 2017 to March 2018 at AED 1,999. The other offerings are for seven nights – with the first and last night spent alongside in Dubai.

MSC Cruises has had a smooth sailing which is evident from its numbers. As Achille Staiano, Head of Commercial Services, MSC Cruises explains from a global perspective, the company has grown 800% in its first ten years (reaching 1.8 million passengers in 2016) and is now well on its way to nearly triple in capacity by 2026.

Mohamed Saeed, general manager Middle East, Royal Caribbean Arabia sheds light on the new developments, “there is a new ship being launched next year, Symphony of the Seas, with her maiden voyage slated for 2018. Arabian Gulf families can take advantage of the many new features on board Symphony of the Seas such as new dining concepts and family activities, theatre, aerial, ice and aqua entertainment. The ultimate family suite can accommodate a family of up to eight in two bedrooms. Split over two levels, the suite offers an exclusive slide from the kid’s only bedroom to the living room below, a floor-to-ceiling LEGO wall, and an air-hockey table and hidden nooks for chilling. A separate 3D movie theatre-style TV room, with a popcorn machine and a library of video games across multiple gaming systems are available for every family. Other features of the suite is the wraparound balcony with a pool table, a climbing experience and a whirlpool with ocean views. Guests can also have their own personal Royal Genie to take care of every need.

The Millennial Wave

Mohamed Saeed, general manager Middle East, Royal Caribbean Arabia
“Royal Caribbean has installed a virtual balcony technology in every interior stateroom on-board Quantum and Oasis Class ships which showcases an ocean view and scenery from destination ports”

The fast moving advancements in technology has left no industry untouched and tourism is no different. In keeping with this growing trend, the cruise industry has been a fast adapter. If one has to look at the millennial generation, it is all about instant gratification and enhanced connectivity and the technological advancements are looking to match every requirement. With Celebrity Cruises, as Durai explains is the Celebrity iLounge which is the first authorized Apple specialist at Sea. In the iLounge, which is available on almost all the Celebrity ships, there are MacBook Pros and iMacs for use. Millennial can explore how to turn your digital photos and movies into masterpieces; listen to, and organize audio and digital books, music and pod casts and much more. MSC Cruises launched a digital innovation programme called MSC for Me.

Staiano explains that the purpose of this programme is to provide a richer experience for all guests: this targets millennials but also families with children. The programme debuted on MSC Meraviglia, the first next-generation mega-ship that came into service in June 2017. The ship is fitted with 16,000 points of connectivity, 700 digital access points, 358 informative and interactive screens, and 2,244 cabins with RFID/NFC access technology. The Company envisions a fleet-wide roll-out of the programme, to the upcoming next-generation mega ships – to be built under its industry-unprecedented Euro nine billion, 10-year investment plan – as well as to its 12 existing ships.

Royal Caribbean known for its advanced offerings has made significant investment in the installation of VOOM, the fastest internet at sea. The cruise company has installed the virtual balcony technology in every interior stateroom on-board Quantum and Oasis Class ships which showcases an ocean view and scenery from destination ports. Robots drive another entertaining feature, and guests can find droids serving up concoctions at the Bionic Bar. The Bionic Bar is making waves with robots taking centre stage. Furthermore, Two70 is home to a playful and agile troupe of six Robo-screens that stage surprise performances during every cruise. Saeed is very optimistic about the RFID WOWband technology and Royal IQ App.  The waterproof rubber wristbands include built-in chips, which double as a room key and the SeaPass card, which can be used to make purchases on-board, meaning safe use of money and less to carry while exploring the ship.

Trending Ahead

With advancements at the core of this industry, we sum up the trends that will lead the cruising industry in the years to come.

  • The worldwide cruise market is now at 25 million passengers and the new ships on order guarantee a further 40% growth over the next five to 10 years
  • The new generation – Millennial and Generation X – will embrace cruise travel more than before
  • River cruise demand on the rise
  • More private islands on cruise itineraries
  • Demand for expedition cruises. Adventure travel is growing at a record pace and cruise tourism is seeing the impact
  • A steady growth of cruise in the region as more ships visit both Dubai and Abu Dhabi in coming years. This will lead to more people cruising locally in the winter and more people cruising in Europe and Asia in summer months
  • Increasing desire for luxury cruising and family holidays
  • More awareness of cruising as a holiday choice in the region
  • Expedition cruises are picking up from the region especially to Antarctica and Artic. The numbers are small but demand is growing mainly from UAE and Oman. The expedition cruises are mostly small ships which can take accommodate 80 – 100 passengers per ship with a duration of 10-days. This would be apart from the flying time to and from the destination.
  • River cruising is another growing trend among not just mature passengers but also first-timers, millennial and even honeymooners. The advantage of river cruises is the option to explore more inland unlike ocean liners which berth at only sea ports. The popular river cruises are on Rhine and Danube rivers in Europe, the Mekong in Vietnam and Nile Cruises in Egypt.

Keep Track 

  • Celebrity Constellation will be returning to the Arabian Gulf for her third season in 2018- 19 winter. She will be sailing multiple Gulf and India cruises during winter
  • The coming of MSC Splendida for the first three months of 2018, before it heads to serve the China market. MSC Splendida is currently being overhauled in dry dock and will be freshly fitted out and ‘upgrade’ with MSC for Me technology and will arrive in the Middle East at by end of December 2017
  • Pullmantur Cruises will debut in the Middle East in 2018-19, offering itineraries on Horizon that will visit Dubai (two days), Abu Dhabi, Khasab, Muscat and Fujairah in the ‘Dubai and Legends of Arabia’ seven nights cruise. In total, the Spanish brand will sail 13 week-long itineraries from 8 December 2018 to 3 March 2019 for the first time in the region