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ATM 2011: more regional ports to boost Gulf cruise tourism

The Middle East needs to build more infrastructure to unlock its potential as a cruise destination, a leading cruise expert has argued.

Addressing a major cruise seminar held in Dubai at Arabian Travel Market 2011, Neil Palomba, corporate operating officer for MSC Cruises said there was a limited choice of ports in the region and more needed to be done to develop the infrastructure to enable cruise lines to bring in bigger ships and extend the winter sailing season.

The company will base the MSC Lirica in Abu Dhabi from November sailing 19 cruises calling at Muscat, Fujairah, Khasab and Dubai, and he said expectations were that capacity could be increased in future with a bigger ship and more itineraries.

“Other challenges are the cost of doing business where the vessel operator charges are comparable with those in Europe, a region of high demand which sells itself – here, our number one priority is to increase local sourcing as there is less potential to grow without passengers from the region.”

His views were echoed by Helen Beck, director of international representatives, EMEA for Royal Caribbean, who said the company would like to offer ‘butterfly’ options where passengers could have a choice of two different itineraries from one hub.


“One of our key opportunities is to widen the scope of our itineraries,” she said.  “We are restricted in our offering and need to be able to offer the region as a whole - the ports are there but the infrastructure is missing to cater to passenger ships rather than cargo vessels.

“I do believe, looking at the map, that we could go down as far as Salalah, up to Kuwait and Bahrain and eventually to Iran and Saudi Arabia, but I don’t see these ports starting to make moves to invest in their facilities.”

Feedback from Ian Calvert of Have a Nice Stay Travel, a major supplier of cruise passengers to the region from the UK, highlighted the need to upgrade and augment the Arabian cruise product.

“The Gulf has proved a popular destination but it is a one-trick pony in terms of itineraries and it is difficult to get repeat business … the region needs to work together to get passengers to return more than once,” he said.

“Passengers have reported back they think regional ports are ‘ugly’ and need to be more people friendly; brochures show desert and Arabian culture but this is not apparent on the ground – a true Arabian port would be a good sell.”

Addressing these issues, Lawrence Franklin, director of strategy and policy at the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority said Mina Zayed port was part of a major redevelopment and in future, the unique backdrop of Sa’adiyat island and its iconic architectural museums and attractions would greet passengers sailing in to the capital.

“We acknowledge there is a difference between a cargo port and cruise passenger facility,” he said.

In Dubai, plans are in hand to also enhance port facilities according to DTCM’s Hamad bin Mejren, who said the cruise sector had become one of the most important tourism sectors in recent years with tremendous growth in the past two years in particular.

“Plans are in place to build and expand (at the port) to accommodate future growth,” he said.

Summing up, the seminar participants agreed that a multi-entry cruise visa for the UAE would help to boost cruise passengers numbers with a bigger take-up from emerging markets where visitors had to pay up to US$50 per visa on a multi-port Gulf cruise.

“We could do much more if we didn’t have this restriction which can add up to an additional cost of US$600 for a family of four from countries such as Russia,” said Helen Beck.

ADTA’s Lawrence Franklin confirmed the authority was lobbying for a cruise visa and indicated a new integrated online immigration system would make it simpler to deploy such a visa.

“We know this is a substantive barrier and an issue that needs to be addressed,” he said.

Held under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, Ruler of Dubai, ATM 2011, which is expecting 22,000 visitors, is being held at the Dubai International Exhibition and Conference Centre until 5 May. The event includes expert seminars, workshops, along with specialist industry days including travel agents day, careers day and consumer day.

Emphasising its extended reach, a number of countries are exhibiting this year for the first time, including Iraq, Poland, Hungary, Mexico, Slovenia, Aqaba, Ukraine and Chad.

ATM 2011’s conference programme also includes a number of expert presentations on technology, including sessions on how social media and mobile technology are changing the industry.