Cruise Industry

MSC Saudi Arabia cruises transformative for Middle East cruise sector

Saudi Arabia cruises and the opening up of the country to cruise tourism will remove two key challenges that have long held the Middle East cruise sector back, and create three opportunities for future growth.

MSC and Saudi Arabian tourism executives announce new Saudi Arabian cruises

Fawaz Farooqui, Managing Director of Cruise Saudi, and Pierfrancesco Vago, Executive Chairman of MSC Cruises at the signing of a homeport deal in Jeddah

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MSC Cruises’ announcement that it will sail Saudi Arabia cruises for the coming winter cruise season is part of a long-anticipated opening up of the country to cruise tourism.

The addition of Saudi Arabia to the regional cruise destination line-up will transform the Middle East cruise sector into one of the world’s leading cruise destinations and markets by removing two of the key challenges that have long held it back.

Too few ports of call in the Arabian Gulf

Since 2006, when Costa Cruises became the first cruise line ever to homeport in Dubai, the Arabian Gulf cruise sector has struggled with a relative dearth of ports of call compared to the Mediterranean and Caribbean (the world’s two primary cruise destinations).

At that time, Costa Cruises sailed from Dubai to Abu Dhabi and Muscat, with Qatar and Bahrain eventually moving to cash in on the growing cruise scene as well.

Then in 2017, Abu Dhabi launched Sir Bani Yas Island, providing the first dedicated cruise beach destination in the Arabian Gulf. With new ports of call like Khasab joining the fray, a growing number of cruise ships started homeporting in Dubai annually, during the November to April winter cruise months.

The AlAhsa oasis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site near Dammam

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A key challenge remained, however. Although Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Manama, Khasab and Muscat are all unique in their own right to their residents, to cruise tourists each seems fairly similar. Diversity of ports of call was a key problem outlined by Steven Young, then-Vice President, Port & Shore Operations for Carnival UK’s P&O Cruises and Cunard at the 2017 Seatrade Middle East Cruise Conference.

“Cruise itineraries between the Mediterranean and Arabian Gulf are port-lean, and the cruise destinations within the Gulf require greater diversity of shore excursion offerings to really make them stand out,” Young told delegates.

“The opening up of the Saudi cruise market would really help in this regard,” he added, when the prospect of such a move was still a distant hope.

The opening up of Saudi Arabia to cruise tourism will therefore have a major impact on the Arabian Gulf cruise sector, with Saudi Arabia cruises creating more ports and greater port diversity.

MSC Virtuosa will cruise to Dammam on her roundtrip Dubai itineraries in 2021 as part of the opening up of Saudi Arabia cruises

The announcement that MSC will homeport MSC Magnifica in Jeddah for the coming winter season was accompanied by confirmation that MSC Virtuosa, homeporting in Dubai during the same period, will include Dammam in Saudi Arabia as a port of call on its roundtrip Dubai itineraries.

The inclusion of Dammam will provide a much-needed mix of shore-side attractions and activities for cruise passengers.

The historic city was founded in 1923 and includes a range of shore excursion options, from heritage villages and museums to the Al-Ahsa Oasis, a traditional historical oasis that dates back millennia. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Too few ports of call in the Red Sea

Back in 2017, Young also pointed out the second major challenge to growing the Middle East cruise sector – it’s location, which is both a blessing and curse. The Arabian Gulf sits almost midway between the major cruise destination of Europe, and the rapidly-growing cruise market in Asia.

Cruise lines typically deploy ships between Europe and Asia at the end of the summer cruise season, and cruise via Dubai and other Middle Eastern ports on the way. They make these repositioning voyages because they have to in order to get ships from Europe to Asia.

Nearby to the port of Al Wajh on the Red Sea, the Amaala tourism project will provide additional port call options for cruise lines – Al Wajh is one of the ports opening to cruise tourists on new Saudi Arabia cruises

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But because of the scarcity of ports of call between Aqaba and Salalah or Muscat in Oman, cruise ships often have to spend up to five days or a full week at sea, making these repositioning itineraries difficult to sell.

As a result, cruise lines are reluctant to reposition ships to the Middle East for a winter season in the Arabian Gulf. The emergence of Saudi Arabia cruises, with new ports of call on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia will change all that, according to comments made by Mohamed Saeed, General Manager, Middle East, Royal Caribbean in 2019.

“At the moment, cruise ships in the Red Sea make only one port of call, in the Jordanian coastal city of Aqaba. There’s just that one stop in Jordan after you pass the Suez Canal, then ships move on,” said Saeed.

At that time, he suggested that Royal Caribbean would be one of the first cruise lines to launch Saudi Arabia cruises if it opened up to cruise tourism.

MSC Cruises has listed three Saudi Arabian ports of call on its cruises from Jeddah in the Red Sea (Al Rass Alabyadh, Yanbu Al Bahr and Al Wajh) in addition to Safaga in Egypt and Aqaba in Jordan.

These Saudi ports will now be available to the wider cruise industry as well, and will likely lead to significant growth in the number of cruise lines embarking on grand voyages and repositioning cruises between Europe and the Middle East, as they’ll prove some welcome shore excursion opportunities on an otherwise long transit of the Red Sea.

As an added bonus, it will also create greater diversity of itineraries for cruise ships forced to cruise the Red Sea when repositioning between Asia and Europe.

More itineraries

More ports of call will give cruise lines a wider variety of cruise itineraries when homeporting in Dubai. Instead of several cruise lines operating the same Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Muscat, Sir Bani Yas Island circuit, they’ll be able to set their itineraries apart from each other.

Some might overnight in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, giving passengers a chance to enjoy the famous night life of these cosmopolitan cities, while others might focus on the history of the region, with Oman and Saudi Arabia cruises on itineraries that focus on the region’s UNESCO World Heritage sites dating back millennia.

Dammam is directly adjacent to the island nation of Bahrain (pictured)

An added bonus of Dammam opening up as a cruise port is its proximity to Bahrain, which makes this small island nation accessible to cruise passengers wanting to explore both Dammam and Bahrain on the same port call.

We may even see cruise lines overnighting in Dammam to give passengers a chance to explore both – although Manama in Bahrain is an emerging cruise port in its own right.

More passengers

A greater variety of ports of call in the Arabian Gulf, and on the repositioning voyages through the Red Sea, will lead to more passengers booking cruises that call in the Middle East, or on cruise ships sailing roundtrip from Dubai.

Camel riding in Dubai desert

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With more cruise passengers booking itineraries, cruise lines will have greater incentive to homeport in the Arabian Gulf, leading to growth in the Middle East cruise sector (in terms of the number of fly-cruise passengers, as well as the number of cruise ships homeporting in Dubai).

Following the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic, getting cruise tourists back to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and the wider Arabian Gulf is a top priority for the UAE.

Some eight cruise lines deployed ten cruise ships in Dubai during the 2019/2020 cruise season, which was meant to be the biggest cruise season to date before it was cut short by the emergence of the pandemic.

Dubai announced that it was reopening the cruise sector late last year, but only two cruise lines announced they would be returning (and ultimately postponed those plans due to second and third waves of the virus in Europe). Now, there are just four cruise lines scheduled to homeport in Dubai for the coming 2021/22 cruise season, with only five ships.

Growth of source market  

Perhaps the most important impact Saudi Arabia cruises will have on the cruise industry in the Middle East is the potential growth of the Middle East source market.

Residents of the GCC countries, which are the primary cruise destinations in the Middle East (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait) tend to book fly-cruise holidays in the Mediterranean, Northern Europe and Caribbean, while residents of Europe, North America, India and Asia, take fly-cruise holidays in the Arabian Gulf.

Encouring more residents of the Arabian Gulf countries to take cruises in local waters is key to future growth of the sector

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Saudi Arabia is the largest consumer market in the Middle East and its residents have a long history of weekend getaways to Dubai, the party capital of the region. The new choice presented by MSC Cruises with Saudi Arabia cruises right on their doorstep in Jeddah, may prompt many of those travelers to try out a cruise holiday instead, leading to growth of the Middle East source market.

As more Saudis take cruise holidays in their home waters, cruise lines will see the benefit of investing in cruise experiences and dining options tailored to the Middle East market, prompting even more local cruise passengers to try a cruise holiday.

Once it has an established cruise source market, in tandem with being a popular cruise destination for fly-cruise foreign tourists, the Middle East will truly be able to stand on its own two feet among the world’s major cruise markets, such as Europe and North America.

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