Seabourn Encore arrived in Mina Zayed at 8am on Monday. On the quay, passengers were met by women and men in traditional Emirati dress serving Arabic coffee and dates. Falconers were on hand and an ayyala traditional dance was performed. Across the water, the dome of Louvre Abu Dhabi shimmered.
Onboard were 604 passengers and 422 crew, meaning the ship was close to capacity. Her arrival marked the start of the 2017/2018 cruise season and it has been quite a decade for the sector.
The cruise business started in Abu Dhabi in 2006 with 32,000 passengers coming through.
Last year a staggering 346,000 passengers visited the capital with 170 calls at Mina Zayed and Sir Bani Yas, while a new cruise terminal opened at Mina Zayed two years ago. A five per cent increase in passengers is forecast this year, with four maiden calls scheduled in Abu Dhabi, as the emirate bids to become the leading international alternative winter sun cruise destination.
This week, Etihad announced a link up with Louvre Abu Dhabi to promote the museum at home and abroad but one of the more interesting questions is how passengers from cruise liners will be able to access the Louvre Abu Dhabi once it opens on November 11.
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“Louvre Abu Dhabi is no more than ten minutes away from here,” said Saif Ghobash, director general of the Department of Culture and Tourism.
“It’s perfect for a passenger seeking a cultural escape and for these one-day stops.”
This view is shared by Saeed Al Dhaheri, cruise sector and city tour development section manager at the department. “We are engaged with the Louvre team. There will be access for them,” he said.
At the Abu Dhabi terminal are gift shops, money exchanges and tourist booths. Signs for attractions such as Al Wathba, Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and Jebel Hafeet hang from the walls, while Big Bus double deckers are lined up outside. There is also an Etihad check-in desk. Mr Al Dhaheri said surveys are conducted to gauge the satisfaction of passengers arriving in Abu Dhabi and last year more than “more than 80 per cent were satisified”.
The passengers arriving at Abu Dhabi are mainly from Europe and the United States. About five per cent come from the local market but it’s hoped that this will increase. A campaign was launched last month to encourage more GCC nationals and Emiratis.
Walking around the terminal on Monday were hundreds of these passengers. For Guillermo and Annette from Mexico City, the chance to visit Abu Dhabi was important. “You hear about it across the world, said Guillermo. “We are always curious to see different cultures and Abu Dhabi is one and we felt it was very safe and very cosmopolitan and very grand. So that’s why we chose to come here.”
Americans David Allen and Sandee Norris are both spent time in Dubai more than twenty years ago but had never been to Abu Dhabi. “We are destination driven so we wanted to come back and see the Emirates as they are today which is very, very different,” said Mr Allen. “We want to get a general feeling for the city. Our plan is to come back and spend more time.”
Cruise arrivals fall into three categories: cruise ships operating seasonal winter sun circular tours of the Arabian Gulf with Abu Dhabi being the beginning and end port; cruise ships which will dock at Abu Dhabi as part of a regional Arabian Gulf itinerary; and international cruise lines which will call at Abu Dhabi for a day during their round-the-world voyage.
Part of the Seabourn chain, the vessel arrived in Abu Dhabi from Muscat via Italy, Santorini and Jordan. Its inaugural season was in 2016, and she has 12 decks, 266 cabins, can reach 19 knots and is 198 metres long.
On Tuesday evening, the Seabourn will leave for Sir Bani Yas, the region’s only dedicated cruise stopover beach and then she heads back to Dubai. Many people will get on in Dubai to begin a fresh cruise to Singapore.
“What distinguishes us is our cultural offering – it’s very, very unique,” said Mr Ghobash.
“Be it the historic sites in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi or the mega museum such as Louvre Abu Dhabi. We hope to open Qasr Al Hosn next year. So we have a plan.”