One of the key concerns of cruise line executives at the recent Seatrade Middle East Cruise Forum was the rapid expansion of Dubai’s cruise infrastructure, which is not being matched by the wider Arabian Gulf region.
Dubai has a number of expansion plans for its existing cruise terminals at Port Rashid, and may even add a fourth terminal building purely for luxury cruise ships, according to one DP World official. But while Dubai Cruise Terminal can accommodate up to seven large cruise ships simultaneously, other ports can only handle two or three at most.
“It’s not really any good having more than six berths in Dubai and all the way-ports only having two berths, because you are going to get great congestion as you get aboard and as the industry grows,” Steven Young, director of port services and government affairs for cruise giant Carnival UK, said during a panel discussion on extending the Middle East cruise season.
“We want to see all of the ports in the region growing in parallel together,” he added.
Thus far, this does not appear to be the case in the regional cruise market. While Dubai Cruise Terminal has expanded significantly over the last five years, other major destination ports (Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Qatar, Muscat) have not.
Abu Dhabi Cruise Terminal can accommodate three ships simultaneously, but only one can dock alongside the terminal building itself.
Abu Dhabi only has berths for three cruise ships, only one of which can dock alongside the actual terminal building (requiring long walks for passengers on ships docked further up the quay), while Muscat, Bahrain and Qatar are still in the process of building their cruise terminals.
Cruise line operators at the Seatrade event said new destinations, such as Ras al Khaimah, which will open a new cruise terminal this year, will therefore be welcome, both to help with capacity but also to add variety to a market that is expected to grow rapidly.
According to the Cruise Lines International Association, 40 million people are expected to be going on cruises ever year by 2030, up from 23 million during 2017, and Dubai Cruise Tourism’s 1-million cruise tourist goal for 2020 will require a 60% boost in numbers.
Young also added that if the Middle East is to become an even larger cruise homeport market it must work to increase the speed of passenger clearance when arriving at ports.
“We really have to have fast processes to get 6,000 guests ashore and back on board, as well as enjoying the destination,” he said, referencing the fact that of the 19 ships Carnival currently has on order (on top of its current fleet of 105), seven will have a capacity of more than 6,000 guests.
He said that Dubai stood out as particularly efficient, while others had work to do in this regard.
Passengers boarding Celebrity Constellation and MSC Splendida in Abu Dhabi complained of a three hour wait in the queue.
Cruise Arabia & Africa has seen for itself that passenger clearance through Dubai versus Abu Dhabi seems to be much faster, which may have played a part in Celebrity Cruises recent decision to begin homeporting in Dubai.
To avoid congestion at the cruise ports of the Arabian Gulf, tourism bodies within each country have been collaborating together much more closely through the Cruise Arabia Alliance, to co-ordinate on route development, capacity and other issues.
Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman have all joined the alliance and in each city there are now set plans to expand cruise infrastructure considerably.
Abu Dhabi Cruise Terminal.
Abu Dhabi’s US $7-billion Khalifa Port has enabled all container traffic to be moved away from the city centre Port Zayed, home to the three-berth Abu Dhabi Cruise Terminal. The terminal building itself is a wonderful, airy, and modern glass structure with shops and cafes for passengers and crew.
It’s understood that Abu Dhabi is also planning to conduct additional training and implement new processes to avoid the regular congestion seem during turnaround days (when passengers on cruise lines such as Celebrity Cruises and MSC Cruises disembark and new ones get on).
There are plans to redevelop Muscat into a more cruise ship-friendly port, with a cruise terminal, hotels, cafes and restaurants.
In Muscat, the opening of the Sohar Port and Freezone in 2014 has enabled cruise ships to berth at Port Sultan Qaboos in the heart of Oman’s capital, using docks previously monopolised by container ships. A US $1 billion redevelopment of the port is now being planned. It will create a tourist-friendly, mixed-use development containing hotels, restaurants, retail, leisure and residential apartments.
Qatar is the only other cruise destination in the Arabian Gulf with a dedicated cruise terminal.
In Bahrain, Abu Dhabi-based Eagle Hills is planning to build a harbour for cruise ships to dock at its Marassi Al Bahrain project, which will add additional capacity to that already available at Mina Salman port, where a small cruise terminal has been built with limited facilities.
Shaikh Khaled bin Humood Al Khalifa, chief executive officer of Bahrain Tourism and Exhibitions Authority (BTEA), said in a press statement that he expected 33 ship calls during the current season, bringing in almost 80,000 passengers.
In Dubai, apart from the existing Dubai Cruise Terminals 2 and 3 (Terminal 1 is occupied by QE2), which provide space for seven ships, the Dubai Harbour project is also to have two cruise ship berths.
Each will have its own terminal and will be able to handle 1.2 million passengers per year.