The increasing popularity of the Middle East as a destination for major international cruise companies in recent years has driven a substantial rise in investments in the segment’s infrastructure in Abu Dhabi, resulting in high growth in the number of ships and passengers calling at the emirate. With a season that runs from October to May, Abu Dhabi is one of the most active participants in the regional cruise market, attracting the interest of operators, which see an efficiency win in deploying ships that would otherwise lie idle during the European off-season.
Abu Dhabi has come a long way since its first entrance into the segment in 2006/07, which saw 32,000 cruise passenger arrivals. The 2016/17 season, the most recent for which statistics are available, brought more than 345,000 tourists into the emirate’s two ports, representing a ten-fold increase on the maiden season and a 49% increase from 2015/16. The Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi) estimated that visitor numbers would rise by a more modest 5% in 2017/18, as a record number of nine rotational callers docked.
According to DCT Abu Dhabi, newly established partnerships with Etihad Airways and Abu Dhabi Ports played an important role in the sharp increase witnessed in the 2016/17 season. Building on this rise in passenger numbers, the department has set itself the target of increasing the number of passengers arriving by cruise ship to 500,000 annually by 2020.
The segment’s growth has been built on continuous investment in infrastructure, as well as private sector partnerships and promotional activities. Opened in December 2015 and built at a cost of Dh80m ($21.8m), the Abu Dhabi Cruise Terminal, located at Port Zayed in Abu Dhabi City, is capable of handling two large ships and one smaller vessel, for a total passenger capacity of 4500. Situated on the 8000-sq-metre site of a former warehouse adjacent to the cultural attractions of Saadiyat Island, the building’s modern facilities and combination of Arabic and international architectural elements succeeded in convincing the operators of the Celebrity Constellation, MSC Fantasia and Aida cruises to use the terminal as their home port for the 2016/17 season, a commitment that was subsequently renewed for the following year. Port Zayed welcomes the majority of the emirate’s cruise traffic, with 291,000 visitors arriving at its dock in the 2016/17 season.
The Abu Dhabi Cruise Terminal is operated and managed by Abu Dhabi Ports, the emirate’s master developer of ports and connected industrial zones. In October 2017 Abu Dhabi Ports signed an agreement with local ferry operator Jalboot Marine to offer boat tours of Abu Dhabi starting from the terminal. The tours connect a number of major attractions such as Louvre Abu Dhabi, Yas Island and Etihad Towers.
Off the coast of Al Dhafra is Abu Dhabi’s second cruise ship destination, Sir Bani Yas Island. While smaller in size than Abu Dhabi Cruise Terminal, Sir Bani Yas Island nonetheless has proved itself to be an attractive destination for passengers and cruise operators alike, receiving 27 ship calls carrying 54,000 passengers in 2016/17. In December 2016 the island saw the launch of the region’s only dedicated cruise stopover beach, Sir Bani Yas Cruise Beach, where stopping ships park off shore and send passengers ashore in smaller boats. The 1.2-km beach offers disembarking passengers a range of options, including sunbeds, snorkelling and cabanas. It also acts as a point from which to explore the island, which is notable for its Arabian Wildlife Park, featuring 10,000 free-roaming animals. A total of 37 ships made stopovers at Sir Bani Yas Cruise Beach during the 2017/18 season, including companies such as Seabourn, Costa neoRiviera, Silversea and Celebrity Cruises.
According to Ali Hassan Al Shaiba, acting executive director of marketing and communications at DCT Abu Dhabi, Europeans make up the bulk of Abu Dhabi’s cruise ship passengers. “Although about 60-70% of cruise tourists are European, with the UK and Germany popular source markets, we’re also seeing growth from India, China and GCC countries,” he told OBG. Cruise ship tourism has yet to take off with much of the wider-GCC population, which accounted for approximately 5% of Abu Dhabi’s cruise ship passengers. While the low uptake has been attributed to the relative novelty of the cruise tourism concept to the Gulf market, the traditionally Western customer base for the subsector also means that many ships are not tailored to the regional market, with mixed-gender swimming pools, alcohol served at bars and non-halal food identified as possible barriers to greater market penetration.
Nonetheless, the segment’s stakeholders are aware that the considerable size of the market for luxury services among GCC countries means the region is a market of significant potential. In September 2017 DCT Abu Dhabi launched a campaign to promote Abu Dhabi cruise tourism in the GCC, including offering discounts of 10-15% to GCC nationals, and formed partnerships with travel agencies and tour operators across the Gulf. This was followed up in October 2017, when DCT Abu Dhabi promoted cruise tourism on a four-stop regional roadshow that took place in Jeddah, Riyadh, eastern Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Abu Dhabi’s ports are used by cruise ships, which operate three types of itinerary. For the emirate and its tourism and transport infrastructure, the most lucrative itineraries are circular tours, beginning and ending in Abu Dhabi. The second type involves regional cruises around the Gulf, while the third consists of longer-distance or intercontinental cruises that include a day in Abu Dhabi.
Currently, regional and intercontinental cruises are the more popular of the three. Luxury operator Seabourn Cruise Line, for example, includes the emirate on itineraries including a “20-Day Empires of the Sun” itinerary, which starts in Greece and ends in Dubai, and a “36-Day Asia, India and Arabia Caravan” cruise, which starts in Hong Kong and ends in Greece. MSC Cruises, meanwhile, focuses on regional cruises, including seven-night tours stopping at Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sir Bani Yas Island and Muscat in Oman, as well as longer 11-night tours across the wider-GCC region. German operator Aida includes Abu Dhabi on intercontinental journeys such as its 21-day Mallorca to Dubai cruise and 20-day Dubai to Singapore cruise.
DCT Abu Dhabi has continued to look for ways to grow the segment’s market presence and improve the cruise tourist visitor experience. In 2017 the governmental body established a Cruise Industry Development Committee, beneath its dedicated cruise department, to encourage growth and development. In September of that year DCT Abu Dhabi sent a delegation to the Cruise Arabia pavilion in Seatrade Europe exhibition in Hamburg, Germany.
In November 2017 Abu Dhabi Ports signed an agreement with Abu Dhabi Airports to introduce 15 airport check-in desks at Abu Dhabi Cruise Terminals, located at Port Zayed, also referred to as Mina Zayed. This means cruise passengers are able to check-in for upcoming flights as soon as they disembark. Check-in facilities are operated by Etihad Airways and include baggage check-in, meaning passengers can spend their remaining time in the city baggage-free.
Thanks to well-established cruise infrastructure, eye-catching itinerary items like the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the desert island appeal of Sir Bani Island, the emirate has made itself a fixture of the emerging Middle Eastern cruise market. “We’ve come a long way from 2006/07, when there was practically no cruise tourism. Now that we have a fully fledged cruise terminal, our objective is to continue to grow visitor numbers,” Al Shaiba told OBG.
With further expansions to cruise infrastructure unlikely in the near future, growing the segment’s numbers will depend on DCT Abu Dhabi’s success in promoting the emirate as a cruise destination. New additions to the emirate’s overall touristic appeal will also provide incentives for international operators.