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March 24, 2015

Middle East: Cruising is a Sea-Change for Meetings

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As the GCC ramps up its cruise offering with new terminal facilities, more ship stopovers, plus the establishment of an official entity to promote the sector, opportunities abound to stage more meetings and events on the water. 

The cruise industry is still very much in its infancy in the GCC, but the sector, already burgeoning in more mature tourism markets globally, holds exponential growth potential for the region. 
For starters, the GCC’s top leisure destinations are dotted along the coast of the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, with each of them ramping up infrastructure investment in a diverse and world-class land-based tourism offering that appeals to international cruise operators of note. Add to that the Middle East’s status as the world’s most-connected region by air and all the foundations are firmly in place for a prosperous cruise industry. 

It’s a sector the region’s top cruise destinations – Dubai, Oman and Abu Dhabi – are now taking seriously, with all three building infrastructure designed to appeal to top cruise operators and, in a bid to promote what the region has to offer leading liners and their cruise guests, the trio has established a promotional body. Cruise Arabia is a collaborative initiative formed by Dubai’s Department of Tourism & Commerce Marketing (DTCM), Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi) and Oman’s Ministry of Tourism. The entity recently participated in the Seatrade Med Convention in Barcelona, Spain, in September 2014, along with key partners such as DMCs and marine terminal handlers, to showcase the Arabian Gulf’s unique destination offering to major international cruise industry players. 

Speaking at the event, DTCM’s Executive Director for Business Tourism, Hamad Mohammed bin Mejren, stressed Dubai, the “home port for cruise tourism in the region”, was committed to working with Oman and Abu Dhabi to “promote the strengths, richness and diversity of cruise travel experiences in the Arabian Gulf”. 

“By working together, we provide a very persuasive rationale for both attracting travellers and bringing more tourists – and ultimately economic growth and employment opportunities – to our respective markets,” he said. 

The current cruise season is expected to be Dubai’s best yet, spurred by the introduction of the new multi-entry UAE visit visa for cruise tourists announced last August, priced at US$50 (AED200). 

“The number of vessels using Dubai Cruise Terminal as their home port has increased to six this season,” said Mejren. “These vessels are expected to make a total of 83 trips in comparison to the 63 trips conducted in the previous 2013/2014 season. We are anticipating a total of 110 ship calls carrying around 381,500 passengers in comparison to 93 ship calls carrying 320,000 passengers last year.” 

Dubai has indicated its commitment to establishing the emirate as a global cruise hub at Mina Rashid by building a third cruise terminal, inaugurated last December by HH Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Crown Prince of Dubai. 

DP World’s Hamdan bin Mohammed Cruise Terminal is set to be the world’s largest covered cruise facility, capable of handling 14,000 cruise passengers daily when fully operational. This will increase the handling capacity of all three terminals from two to seven million visitors annually.

Neighbouring Oman boasts not one, but several cruise stops – Muscat, Sur, Salalah and Khasab – and anticipates an 18 percent increase in cruise passengers to the sultanate in 2014, when figures are assimilated. This would build on figures for 2013, which saw 115 ships sailing into Oman. 

The figure is expected to “increase significantly over the coming three years”, according to Khalid Al Zadjali, Director of Tourism Events at Oman’s Ministry of Tourism. Al Zadjali was speaking at last December’s Seatrade Middle East Cruise Forum in Oman, which took place at Al Bustan Palace, a Ritz-Carlton Hotel. During the forum, cruise lines from around the world, including European heavyweight TUI Cruises and UK small ship operator Nobel Caledonia, revealed intentions to ramp up their itineraries to the sultanate. 

The latter will return to Oman in 2015 after a hiatus of a few years, with its ship Island Sky stopping at Muscat, Sur and Khasab. 

“Oman is a rich seam to be mined,” commented Fleet Director Mike Deegan. “Part of our reason to be here for the forum is to investigate more ports and islands along the Omani coastline.” 

Meanwhile, 2015 marks the start of the transformation of Port Sultan Qaboos into a tourism and cruise ship precinct, an initiative designed to re-establish Muscat as the Gulf’s maritime gateway. 

Work is also underway on the new cruise terminal at Zayed Port in Abu Dhabi, with a completion date of Q4 this year (the start of the 2015 to 2016 cruise season) confirmed by Abu Dhabi Ports Company (ADPC). 

The current cruise season (2014 to 2015) marks Abu Dhabi’s busiest yet with 200,000 passengers from 95 vessels expected, compared to 189,000 passengers from 75 ships last season (2013 to 2014). 

Adding further credence to the UAE capital’s fledgling cruise industry, Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines (RCCL) recently revealed plans to deploy a luxury vessel from its Celebrity Cruises fleet in Abu Dhabi on a home-port basis from November 2016. 

Celebrity Constellation, with capacity for 2,170 guests, will be the premium brand’s first ship to make the Abu Dhabi Cruise Terminal its home – a move that reinforces the emirate’s world cruise destination ambitions. 

The ship will sail nine-, 12- 14- and 15-night cruises covering five ports of call between November 2016 and the end of January 2017. 
During the three-month season, the ship will drive around 15,000 guests to Abu Dhabi on six luxury cruises of the Arabian Gulf and Indian Ocean. 

Until now, marketing efforts have focused on the leisure tourism benefits the region’s developing cruise sector will generate. The positive repercussions for the meeting industry, however, have not gone unnoticed. 

With six international cruise ships home porting in the Arabian Gulf this winter, there are “plenty of opportunities for Middle East cruises to attract the meeting and event sector” according to Mary Bond, editor of Seatrade publications Seatrade Cruise Review & Seatrade Insider. 

The current season, which runs until June 2015, sees Dubai handling more than 75 turnarounds on itineraries ranging up to seven days with a combination of stops mainly featuring stays in Abu Dhabi, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and Sharjah. Facilities on ships operating in the region this winter by Costa Cruises, AIDA Cruises, TUI Cruises and MSC Cruises lend well to group meetings with conference facilities onboard and multiple entertainment and dining venues. Tailor-made excursions and activities can be arranged for groups during port visits. 

“Efforts to bring more cruise tourism to the Gulf, bolstered by collaborations such as Cruise Arabia, will pique the interest of planners who are looking for unique meetings, incentives and conferences,” said Lois Wilcox, Exhibition Manager at Reed Travel Exhibitions for Middle East meeting show, IBTM Arabia. “Meetings at sea, combined with exciting land excursions for business or pleasure, will add another dimension to the region’s MICE offering.” Wilcox said IBTM Arabia expected growing interest from cruise sector exhibitors, signalling the market’s growth potential in the Gulf. 

Helen Beck, Regional Director, International Representatives – Europe, Middle East and Africa – for Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises, said all three cruise lines had witnessed a “steady increase in business” from the MICE market globally, but the Gulf lagged behind a little in this arena. 

“We have yet to see significant pick-up rom the MICE industry to hold conferences and incentives onboard. However, this is a segment we are keen to grow,” she confirmed. 

“There are many reasons for corporate clients hosting events at sea such as reward and recognition incentive programmes for sales teams, product launches and all kinds of meetings, small and large.” 

Beck said it was the job of cruise lines and industry partners such as DMCs, tourism boards, hotel partners and airlines to keep on communicating the message about the various benefits of holding meetings at sea. 

“While we do compete with land options, organising conferences and incentives at sea can also complement land-based suppliers,” she added. 
Beck also stressed how the combined impact of World Expo 2020 to be staged in Dubai and new UAE-wide infrastructure developments presented a great opportunity for the cruise industry to attract the MICE market to the region. 

“We offer a unique way for clients to enjoy a taste of the Gulf and by working with different destinations to showcase their many and varied attractions and events, we can really grow new and diverse segments,” she said. “For example, there are many world-class sporting events held in the region and, if the dates are shared well in advance, we can easily build our itineraries around them.” 

RCCL is one of the Middle East’s most significant cruise operators with ships sailing the region including Splendour of the Seas, Celebrity Constellation, Royal Caribbean International’s newest ship, Quantum of the Seas, plus Rhapsody of the Seas, Explorer of the Seas and Azamara Club Cruises vessel, Azamara Quest

Lakshmi Durai, CEO of Travel Matrix, which represents Celebrity Cruises in the Gulf, highlighted how meetings at sea offered planners value for money with “very affordable” packages including accommodation, all meals and activities and most entertainment on board. 

“Staging a meeting or conference on a cruise ship saves time and the hassle of arranging all components separately as the cruise provides everything under one roof,” she said. 

Abu Dhabi Convention Bureau Director Mubarak Al Shamisi added that the destination, which has ambitious targets for ramping up its meeting business, was “aware of the excellent MICE opportunities cruise ships can hold, largely for home-porting vessels”. He said: “As Abu Dhabi will now be the home port of Celebrity Constellation from the 2016 season, we will work with operators to leverage this potential.” On top of becoming a tourism draw, cruises are set to have an increasing impact on how the region’s meeting industry will evolve with smooth sailing a priority for all. 

Value for money: includes accommodation, all meals and snacks, entertainment, activities, dedicated conference and meeting space; audiovisual equipment; and onboard event co-ordinators. 
Endless options: planners can pick from a wide range of itineraries combining land and sea components. 
Dedicated facilities: state-of-the-art meeting rooms, leading-edge conference technology and audiovisual equipment, catered refreshment breaks, theatre and lounges available for corporate events, ship-wide Wi-Fi, plus a dedicated team of corporate meeting and incentive specialists. 
Convenience: a cruise caters to a wide variety of interests incorporating many destinations and boasts the lure of the ship itself. Guests can avoid the hassle of packing and unpacking at each stop. 
Unique experience: many meeting delegates will not have taken a cruise before, which means a meeting at sea will offer them a unique and memorable experience. 
Ease of planning: cruising is a turnkey operation. There is no need to arrange meals, entertainment, staging or décor because the planning is all done for you. 
Customisation: meeting or incentive programmes can be customised by adding in team-building events, private receptions, award ceremonies and private group shore excursions. (Source: RCCL) 

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