Sharjah to ride the cruise wave

Along with Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Sharjah is fast becoming a major destination in the world of passenger liners and is on the right track to fulfil its tourism ambitions.

Since the 2014-2015 season started Sharjah’s Khor Fakkan port has received 13 major cruise-liners with a total of more than 30,000 tourists on board. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
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Sharjah is becoming an increasingly visited emirate.

Not only from those passing along Mohammed bin Zayed Road but those arriving along the coast of the Arabian Sea or the Gulf of Oman – cruise passengers. International cruise traffic is expected to bring in 80,000 tourists this season as more than 36 international cruise ships are scheduled to visit the emirate. The Khor Fakkan Port on Sharjah’s east coast is the main beneficiary of the surge in passenger traffic since the 2014-2015 cruise season began in October. Christmas Eve and the day after Christmas Day 2014 saw two major cruise ships, TUI Mein Schiff 2 and Costa neoRiviera arrive in Khor Fakkan with an estimated total of 4,000 passengers on board.

Passengers on a cruise liner live in a something of gilded cage. They have everything they need to keep themselves in the lap of luxury for the duration of their voyage and also have a variety of opportunities to leave the elegant confines for a few hours to explore the exotic surroundings they find themselves in for that day.

Cruise liners, depending on the operator, will spend anything from a few hours in a port to a maximum of one night and two days – the prices of the port, the opportunities for passenger’s time spent on land, as well as the age and activity levels of the liner’s customers all play an important part in where the ship will dock and for how long.

While a cruise liner has everything a holidaymaker needs, it does not have the authentic mementoes of far- flung places bought in the original habitat. That is where the docking ports come in, a spider’s web of souqs, sales offers, entertainment and eateries await – a carefully spun tableau of heritage, culture and commercial enterprise.

The visited ports are a big spending opportunity for cruise takers and are becoming an increasingly important hub for tourism, food and beverage, retail and marketing.

The Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority makes special arrangements to welcome cruise passengers with visitors taken on tours of Heritage Village and treated to traditional hospitality at an Emirati dwelling where they were welcomed with dates and Arabic coffee. The visitors, in various groups, also get an opportunity to learn about Emirati customs, traditions, food, culture, traditional attire and the art of henna painting.

“Revenue is being generated through the development of touristic infrastructure and sale of bespoke shore exposure in cooperation with the private and public sector,” says Conny Boettger, the manager for the Destination Development Department, Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Development Authority. “In general [we generate revenue] directly via sale of shore exposure and passengers’ use of touristic facilities and general infrastructure such as taxis, local shops, money exchange, et cetera. From a cruise perspective, our main generating markets are German, Italian, French, Spanish, the UK and the US.”

The cruise business is becoming an important part of the UAE’s tourist offering. Since the 2014-2015 season started Sharjah’s Khor Fakkan port has received 13 major cruise-liners with a total of more than 30,000 tourists on board. During the current season, more than 36 international cruise ships are scheduled to visit the emirate. There are a number of tourism projects and high-end hotels such as the Chedi Khor Fakkan and the Kalba eco-tourism initiative unveiled to bolster the tourist offering in the region. The cruise stops and visitor numbers back up the growing global interest in Sharjah, particularly in its picturesque east coast.

The Arabian Gulf is fast becoming a busy destination for cruise liners. Dubai has three terminals, the third of which, the Hamdan bin Mohammed Cruise Terminal in Port Rashid, opened in December. It is the largest covered cruise facility in the world and this month welcomed five ships simultaneously for the first time in its history.

More than 25,000 passengers and crew of the Costa Serena, AIDA diva, Amadea, MSC Orchestra and Costa neoRiviera, arrived at the port in mid January. The new facility can take seven cruise liners and was due late yesterday to welcome the luxury cruise liner Queen Mary II after it left Khor Fakkan.

The mammoth ship cost Dh2.5 billion to build and is operated by Cunard Line. The liner, which has sailed from the Jordanian city of Aqaba, is carrying more than 2,000 passengers and a crew of at least 1,000.

“We have ambitious targets for cruise visitors as part of the Tourism Vision for 2020 and we expect to welcome 450,000 cruise visitors by 2016,” says Hamad bin Mejren, the executive director of Dubai Tourism. “We are confident these figures are achievable given the new multiple entry UAE visa for cruise tourists, which will open new source markets for us like India and China.”

Dubai has been accommodating cruise ships since 1967 and the new terminal can welcome 14,000 people every day. Dubai’s 2020 vision is to attract 20 million tourists a year with the cruise business picking up 5 per cent of that total, welcoming a million cruising passengers annually. It is hoped the new terminal, along with the existing facilities, will accommodate up to 7 million passengers a year.

Dubai’s big push is to become a hub for cruising traffic with passengers flying into Dubai, staying a couple of nights in the city before embarking on a cruise though the Gulf and returning back to Dubai. The tours sold out of Dubai are becoming an ever increasing driver of business, seeing 15 per cent to 20 per cent year on year increases in sales.

“While Sharjah and Abu Dhabi both have attractive ports, cruises from Dubai are the most popular,” says Samer Assaad, the director of Alpha Holidays. “We have found that a lot of Emirati holidaymakers are enjoying the cruises through the Gulf enjoying the facilities on board the ships. Sales have jumped 15 to 20 per cent every year.

“Our main packages are four days on board stopping at Abu Dhabi and Oman. Of course the ship arrives carrying passengers from Europe who will enjoy themselves ashore,” Mr Assaad says. “It is mainly visitors from Saudi Arabia that fly in and join the boat in Dubai.”

Abu Dhabi Ports Company (ADPC) expects an increase of nearly 25 per cent more cruise ships in the capital and 16 per cent additional passengers following the issuance of multiple entry visas to the UAE. Tourists can now enter the UAE through any of its airports, continue on a cruise out of its ports and come back to the Emirates on the same visa.

ADPC expects a steady increase in cruise tourists over the next few years, forecasting 130 ships and 300,000 passengers to call on Abu Dhabi in the 2019-2020 season. A new cruise passenger terminal is set to open in 2016, which will be able to handle three vessels simultaneously and cope with up to 2,500 passengers a day.

Meanwhile, Qatar’s Doha Port is expecting to cater to cruise tourists exclusively from 2016 after commercial port operations move to a US$7.4bn facility outside the city.

In Oman Sultan Qaboos Port is to be revamped to cater to cruise ships. There are also plans to revamp Salalah and Musandam’s Khasab ports for cruise tourists.