The Gulf is re-emerging as a success story for winter sun cruising, with an ever-increasing range of attractions on the ground. by Charlotte Thomas
When Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth arrived in Abu Dhabi in 2015, passengers were met with Al Ayala dancers, traditional Emirati food, a henna artist to paint their hands and a falconer with his bird of prey. This colourful Arab welcome is indicative of the enthusiasm of Abu Dhabi (and along the coast, Dubai) for cruise business.
Despite the turbulence of the Arab Spring back in 2010, the Gulf is firmly back on the map as a winter sun cruise destination. Passenger numbers have rocketed from fewer than 7,000 cruise passengers in 2001 to 358,000 in 2014. Cruise lines that quit the region are returning – Royal Caribbean, for example – and others are starting to homeport here, Celebrity Cruises being a case in point.
And whereas most ships used to be based in Dubai, neighbouring Emirate Abu Dhabi is now emerging as a serious contender.
The Abu Dhabi government has set out an Economic Vision 2030 that aims to reduce the Emirate’s dependence on oil and gas and create new revenue streams, one of which is tourism. As part of this strategy, Abu Dhabi Ports has invested in the facilities at Zayed Port. A new cruise terminal building will open in time for the coming winter season, able to accommodate three large ships at once and offering a traditional Arabic welcome in addition to the practical facilities like foreign exchange and wifi access.
Abu Dhabi has also aggressively gone after homeporting business. When cruising here began, back in 2006-2007, Zayed Port welcomed 29 ships and 36,000 cruise passengers. This has grown to 94 ships and 200,407 cruise passengers in the 2014-2015 season and will expand dramatically further in 2016/17, when Celebrity Constellation will be based here. “From a logistical point of view, Abu Dhabi has a modern airport with great air lift from around the UK and Ireland, and there have been extensive developments to the port,” says Celebrity’s managing director UK & Ireland, Jo Rzymowska. “In fact, the support we have received from the Abu Dhabi tourist board has been exceptional, including supporting our drive to train travel industry professionals and our own teams on the destination. Sales performance has been very good so far, and putting our 2016-17 season on sale earlier than ever before – including these new Abu Dhabi itineraries – has certainly been popular with our guests.”
A choice of sailings from nine to 15 nights is available, featuring overnights in destinations such as Dubai and Oman that will offer guests the opportunity to go ashore on the evenings. What’s unusual about some of Celebrity’s cruises is that they use Abu Dhabi as a base from which to visit India, with calls at New Mangalore and Goa, as well as an overnight in Dubai and a call at the Omani port of Khasab.
As recently as a few years ago, Abu Dhabi couldn’t really compete with Dubai in terms of tourist attractions. But this is changing, with a serious cultural side to the destination emerging in addition to the shopping and desert safaris for which the region is best known. Saadiyat Island, within easy reach of the port, is being developed into an international cultural hub, with the Louvre Abu Dhabi opened in 2015 and The Zayed National Museum this year, followed by the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi in 2017. In addition, there’s the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (which is not new but is an essential stop on any sightseeing tour); Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, with the world’s fastest rollercoaster; and for kids big and small, the Yas Waterworld theme park.
See the musical fountains at Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, and then head up to the viewing area at sunset.
Cruise the fjords of Musandam, the northernmost peninsula of Oman, sailing on a traditional dhow along the stark, dramatic shoreline.
Visit the Ferrari World theme park, just to say you’ve ridden the world’s fastest rollercoaster.
Take a seaplane ride over Dubai and photograph The Palm from the air.
Go for high tea at some of the most opulent hotels in the world: the emirates palace in abu dhabi or the al bustan palace in muscat.
Book a dune-bashing safari; it’s an experience not to be missed and there’s no driving required
A Gulf cruise is like a series of city breaks, with overnights in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Muscat. It’s therefore ideal for clients who don’t want to spend a long time at sea and who want to enjoy the local nightlife – the souk in Muscat after sunset, for example, or some of the superb local restaurants.
Gulf cruises are great for families. There are world-class waterparks in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi as well as indoor skiing in Dubai, desert excursions, boat trips, camel rides and sandy beaches.
Check when ramadan falls. Although this is not a reason to stay away, clients need to understand the etiquette about things like not eating in public.
Men and women need to cover up to visit mosques. Wraps and scarves are provided at the entrance to the bigger mosques but shorts should not be worn.
A Gulf cruise works well as part of a cruise-and-stay holiday; both Dubai and Abu Dhabi have world-class hotels.
On a budget? With lead-in prices from under £300 (cruise-only), clients can live very cost effectively if they eat on board and are not overly seduced by the shopping malls.