The UAE can serve as a model for countries such as South Africa that want to take advantage of one of the world's fastest growing leisure activities, cruise tourism, industry experts say.
The Emirates has firmly established itself as a major destination for cruise ships and can handle just about any kind of tourist vessel, some of which are more like mini floating towns with up to 6,000 passengers. Dubai's cruise terminal at Mina Rashid handled 625,000 passengers alone over the past season.
Mina Rashid's appeal lies in its facilities and ability to speedily disembark and board passengers.
"Dubai's amazing," says Fiona Shevel from Cape Town, a regular on cruise excursions around the world. "They get you off the boat and back on quickly, so there's no worry about doing a day trip and missing the boat – or dinner!"
Dubai is capable of handling 18,000 people a day, but in Cape Town a single large vessel can overwhelm the Port of Cape Town's ability to process passengers. In January this year the Queen Mary 2, now a floating hotel at Port Rashid, docked briefly in the city, which struggled to get visitors off and on the vessel during the time allotted for day trips. Some passengers spent hours trapped in traffic in the harbour vicinity and then hours more at the city's convention centre, which had been pressed into service as a customs depot.
"We are extremely sorry that a number of guests experienced delays in boarding in Cape Town'" Cunard spokeswoman Michele Andjel told South Africa's Sunday Times. "Unfortunately, this was caused by a technical issue with the check-in system combined with adverse weather conditions and traffic congestion in the city."
The Queen Mary 2 carries around 3,000 passengers but is hardly the largest vessel out there. A new generation of vessels carrying up to 6,000 tourists is being launched and South Africa needs to prepare for them.
Last year was one of the best ever for Cape Town in terms of cruise vessel visits, which delivered 28,000 tourists to the city – although only a fraction of those arriving at Mina Rashid over the same period.
"One of the most critical aspects of creating a vibrant cruise industry is investment in world-class infrastructure," says , Gaurav Sinha, a Dubai-based tourism expert and the chief executive of branding agency Insignia. "From ports to terminals and on-ground support that’s essential for tourists to access a destination in a seamless manner, and this is what Dubai has done well."
Mr Sinha notes that cruise ports do not operate in isolation, either. Vessels that stop in Dubai also call in other Arabian Gulf region harbours, to give tourists a regional experience.
Mr Sinha says this can be replicated in Africa. "Ships move from one port to another and there’s great potential to build the cruise industry in sub-Saharan Africa as people want to discover the abundance of nature, culture and heritage across the continent," he says.
Given its attractions such as safari parks, miles of beaches and great food, South Africa is punching below its weight regarding cruise tourism. Andrew Robinson, a transport expert and director at Norton Rose Fulbright attorneys, says the country needs to take on the lack of infrastructure and administrative inertia to make the country more cruise friendly
"Currently, South Africa's share of the cruise tourism market, estimated globally to be at plus 21 million tourists, is less than 1 per cent," Mr Robinson says.
There are signs that some ports are now planning ahead. Durban, which abuts the Indian Ocean, intends to welcome up to 700,000 passengers annually within the next few decades. A 25-year concession to a joint venture between MSC Cruises SA and Africa Armada Consortium was launched last year to build and manage a 200 million rand (Dh59.7m) modern cruise terminal.
Mr Robinson says the terminal will boast a host of new features and facilities, allowing for simultaneous embarkation and disembarkation of passengers on multiple vessels. The facility will draw on lessons from cruise terminals around such Sir Bani Yas in Abu Dhabi and Mina Rashid, he says.
Parking for vehicles, curbside drop-off for a dozen buses and a new concourse to process passengers will replace the rather drab buildings that are used now. Like the UAE versions, the Durban terminal will also include shopping, conferencing and leisure components.
Cape Town and Port Elizabeth are also planning substantial upgrades to their harbours that they hope will draw in tourists.
In time, these ports can become hubs for even more exotic tours. South Africa possesses islands deep in the Southern Ocean that few other than research scientists ever get to see. The Prince Edward Islands, for instance, lie off Antarctica, where South Africa also has a research base.
Other countries already offer Antarctic cruises, and there is no reason South Africa could not do so as well, says Mr Robinson.
"Launch pads [at ports] to Antarctic for research and related activities should be encouraged and promoted by ports."
Ms Shevel, for her part, welcomes the idea of local cruise infrastructure investment. Although she has taken a few Indian Ocean trips from Cape Town that include islands such as Mauritius and the Seychelles, most of her voyages begin with a flight to the UK or UAE, from where she joins a vessel.
"Cape Town is my favourite city in the world. I'd very much like to watch Table Mountain disappear as the boat leaves and see it when I arrive back home."
A sentiment that may well be shared by many more in the near future.