Dubai taps ocean cruise market with Brilliance

One of the region's biggest liners sets sail from the emirate as it seeks a bigger slice of the US$25bn cruise market.

One of the region's biggest ocean liners sets sail from Dubai today as the emirate seeks to tap into the US$25 billion (Dh91.82bn) cruise market and overcome the impact of the global economic downturn on its tourist industry. Royal Caribbean's $400 million cruise ship, Brilliance of the Seas, can hold about 2,500 guests and is scheduled to bring more than 32,000 passengers to the region in its first four-month season.

On average, cruise tourists spend more than $300 a visit, while crew members spend about $150, research by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) shows. Travel and tourism contributed 19 per cent of Dubai's GDP last year. Tourism officials hope to attract 15 million visitors by 2015, but the recession has made that goal difficult. "This brings more exposure to Dubai, more people into the country, and more people coming in and spending money," said George Varghese, the general manager of the port agent Rais Hassan Saadi Group.

More than 13 million passengers went on cruises in 2008, the Cruise Lines International Association reported. In the first half of last year, Dubai visitor numbers rose by 5 per cent. Royal Caribbean, which is based in Miami, is launching a seven-night Gulf cruise which travels to Muscat, Fujairah, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain. Dubai is the home port of the Brilliance of the Seas, Royal Caribbean's first ship based in the Middle East.

"Cruise tourists are becoming an increasingly important part of Dubai's tourism industry," said Hamad bin Mejren, the executive director of business tourism at the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM). "We are confident that Royal Caribbean International's decision will give a big push to our efforts to promote cruise tourism in the region." But one factor that might inhibit expanding the cruise industry is the fact that Dubai does not offer a cruise visa for passengers wishing to disembark.

Tourists who are not citizens of the 33 countries that do not need visas to enter the UAE, must buy three separate visas at a cost of $240 a visitor. Citizens of China and Russia, which are important markets for the UAE, must obtain the extra visas. "This visa issue is something that does need a better resolution," said Michael Bayley, the senior international vice president for Royal Caribbean. "It's just impractical."

Italy's Costa Cruises made the emirate its regional hub in 2007. Royal Caribbean's competitor also plans to expand its regional presence. A new ship, Costa Deliziosa, will be named in Dubai late next month. The ship will start sailing around the Gulf in March. Costa Cruises said it expected a 40 per cent increase in the number of guests cruising to Dubai in the current season, which would have a benefit of ?14m (Dh73.9m) for the city.

Dubai hosted 100 cruise ships last year, which brought in about 260,000 tourists. This year, Dubai will host 120 ships with more than 325,000 passengers. As the sector continues to grow, Dubai expects in 2012 to host 150 ships with 425,000 passengers, the DTCM forecasts. Dubai's new cruise terminal is expected to open next month, the DTCM said, although its launch was originally planned to coincide with the arrival of Brilliance of the Seas. The ship is using the temporary terminal.

The new terminal will have the capacity to handle up to four ships at the same time. Mr Varghese said other emirates and countries in the Gulf are interested in becoming home ports, but they would first need to heavily upgrade their infrastructure to support the arrival of cruise ships. Abu Dhabi is carrying out a feasibility study for a cruise terminal. The ADTA has said: "It is considered Abu Dhabi has strong potential to develop as a home or turnaround port for cruise ships operating in the Gulf region."

The number of cruise ships stopping in the capital grew from about 10 a year in 1999 to more than 50 in the latest season. At the same time, the number of passengers grew from about 10,000 to nearly 100,000. Abu Dhabi is looking at a target of 300 ships and more than 600,000 passengers a year by 2030. Next year, Royal Caribbean's cruises out of Dubai will also sail to Mumbai, Goa and Cochin in India.

Royal Caribbean said it was in discussions with Emirates Airline to develop a strategic partnership to provide stopover opportunities, for example, to shuttle cruise guests from Australia to Rome. @Email:rbundhun@thenational.ae