The major disruption to cruise itineraries in the Eastern Mediterranean due to the Israel-Hamas conflict has had little impact on the 2023/24 Middle East cruise season in the Arabian Gulf, but that could change depending on ongoing developments.
The escalating conflict between Israel and Hamas has had a major impact on cruise itineraries in the Eastern Mediterranean featuring Israel as a departure port, or port of call, but amid concerns of the conflict widening to involve other countries in the region, its impact is beginning to be felt as far afield as the Arabian Gulf.
On October 7th, the militant group Hamas launched surprise cross-border raids from Gaza, one of the occupied territories within Israel, killing more than 1,400 Israeli and foreign citizens, and taking more than 100 hostages. In response, Israel declared war on the group, and has been pounding the Gaza Strip with airstrikes for two weeks, while Hamas has been launching rockets into Israel.
The death toll in Gaza exceeds 3,400 while 12,065 others have been wounded, according to Palestinian authorities. In the occupied West Bank, more than 70 people have been killed and 1,300 wounded, while 1,400 people in Israel have been killed and 3,800 injured.
Israeli Cruises Cancelled
The outbreak of the violence immediately prompted cruise lines to cancel port calls in Israel and cruises from the country. Royal Caribbean made the first move, cancelling its homeporting season in Haifa, Israel aboard Rhapsody of the Seas, followed by several other cruise lines that had port calls scheduled for Haifa and Ashdod.
Celestyal Cruises has cancelled all port calls to Israel until at least November, along with Holland America Line, MSC Cruises, Oceania Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, TUI Cruises and Azamara, all of which have cancelled port calls in Israel through at least November.
The cruises by these lines that were intended to call on Israel will sail as planned, but Haifa and Ashdod port calls will be replaced with port calls in other ports in the region, primarily Limassol in Cyprus and Rhodes in Greece, as well as days at sea as these port reach their capacity.
Israel has a thriving cruise market, but is a particularly risky proposition for cruise lines due to its geopolitical situation. In July, 2014, the German cruise line AIDA pulled out of Israel for two months during a resurgence in the Israeli-Palestine conflict. One of its ships was in port when it was struck by missile debris, prompting the cancellation of Israeli itineraries.
Royal Caribbean’s cancellation of its cruise season in Israel is also reminiscent of a similar move made in 2021 during the last bout of fighting when Odyssey of the Seas was pulled out of Israel.
This latest conflict, however, has been described as unprecedented in scale and loss of life, and amid fears of the conflict escalating beyond Israel, potentially destabilizing wider parts of the region, other cruise lines have begun to cancel port calls further afield.
Impact on Dubai cruises in Arabian Gulf
Windstar Cruises was meant to sail its first-ever homeporting season in the Arabian Gulf this year between November, 2023 and March, 2024, but has cancelled the entirety of its season out of Dubai in the UAE.
“It is with a heavy heart that I must convey some important news regarding our inaugural Middle East cruise season, which was scheduled to begin on November 23, 2023,” Windstar said in the statement to booked guests. “Due to the current environment and the evolving circumstances in the region, we have made the difficult decision to postpone this season until the fall of 2024.”
Windstar is offering guests the option to move their sailing to a 2024 date, or a comparative cruise this year in the Caribbean, Tahiti, Costa Rica and Panama. The cruise line has also confirmed that it will be coming to the region to sail a full season out of Dubai for 2024/25.
Windstar Cruises is the only cruise line to have cancelled cruises to or from Dubai thus far. Dubai is the primary cruise port in the Arabian Gulf and widely considered to be the most stable, secure and safe city in the Middle East, and one of the safest in the world.
However, if the Israel-Hamas conflict continues to escalate, and if expectations continue to mount that it could spread beyond the borders of Israel and the Gaza Strip, cruise lines will find themselves in an increasingly difficult situation.
Editor’s Note: Three days after this article was published, MSC Cruises announced that it was cancelling its entire Red Sea cruise season out of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia due to the uncertainties around the possible escalation of the Israel-Hamas conflict.
Dubai cruise market remains stable
Large cruise lines such as MSC Cruises, Costa Cruises, AIDA and TUI, all of which are homeporting in Dubai this year, have global security departments that track geopolitical events and risk indicators on a constant basis, giving them greater leeway in decision making, unlike smaller lines like Windstar.
Jewel of the Seas is scheduled to homeport in the region from August 2024 sailing a series of Eastern Mediterranean voyages from Haifa, while Serenade of the Seas will briefly visit the region in May when it sails from Dubai to Athens, via the Suez Canal, as part of its “Ultimate World Cruise” voyages. At this time, Royal Caribbean has given no indication that those cruises are being cancelled or modified.
Similarly MSC Cruises has confirmed that it will still be deploying two ships to the Middle East as planned for the 2023/24 cruise season (MSC Virtuosa and MSC Opera out of Dubai in the UAE), despite the cancellation of its Saudi Arabia season.
Other cruise lines have also confirmed they’re operating on a business-as-usual basis. Viking notes its river cruise departures along the Nile in Egypt are proceeding as planned, with only select overland extensions to Jerusalem having been cancelled.
“All of our departures in Egypt are operating as scheduled,” the cruise line said in a statement. “Our top priority is the safety and wellbeing of our guests, crew and partners on the ground; should additional extension cancellations become necessary, impacted guests and their Travel Advisors will be contacted directly by Viking Customer Relations.”
It’s important to note that the security situation in Israel is extremely volatile, particularly due to the involvement of Iran, which has proxy forces such as Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, ready to potentially expand the conflict to additional countries.
Passengers should therefore monitor travel advisories from their respective governments and keep an eye on regional events ahead of their cruise to make an informed decision regarding whether to travel, while also anticipating that cruises in the region could be cancelled or modified at the last minute due to unfolding events.