Qatar taps into growing stream of cruise ship traffic

In a bid to expand its share of the growing cruise tourism industry, Qatari officials are looking to redevelop Doha Port to include a dedicated docking station for passenger vessels, and have been successfully courting cruise lines to send an increasing number of their ships to the capital city. This should go a long way to enhancing Qatar’s tourism profile, with the potential to draw in thousands of new visitors each year.

According to Abdul Aziz Nasser Al Yafei, director of Doha Port Management, Qatar is booked to receive 30 cruise ships in the 2016/17 tourist season ( October-April), up from eight the previous year. If all goes to plan, this could bring more than 50,000 tourists to Doha’s shores that season and more than 130,000 the following year, according to the government agency responsible for planning, regulating and promoting the sector, Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA).

Landmark Events

In a foreshadowing of this, three cruise ships docked in Doha Port in November 2015, unloading 1500 tourists in the heart of the capital to drink Arabic coffee, see falconing shows, watch a traditional Ardha sword dance and take tours of key landmarks. It was the maiden voyage for one of the vessels, Seabourn Sojourn; another, the MS Island Sky, was the first to dock there as part of the Cruise Arabia Alliance, a cooperative body set up in 2012 to promote regional maritime tourism. The alliance reached six members when Bahrain signed on in late 2015, joining Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah and Oman.

The trio of November landings brought much publicity to Qatar ahead of the Seatrade Middle East Cruise Forum it hosted the following month in Doha, bringing together state officials and industry stakeholders from across the Gulf region, as well as executives from 11 international cruise lines. Over two days of sessions on December 7-8, the participants discussed topics like developing joint itineraries for the Gulf, potential source markets, operational issues, visa processes and expansion of onshore offerings.

Gulf Stream

Worldwide, the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) expects the industry to put some six new ocean vessels in the water in 2015, and 33 over the 2015-20 period. Though just 1% of the global cruise market currently operates in the Gulf, CLIA expects the region to see 1m cruise passengers in the 2015/16 season. Its report from early 2015 showed the cruise industry had grown to $117bn in 2013, the latest data provided. Passenger numbers, it said, rose to 23m in 2015, up from 22m the previous year, and were set to reach 24m in 2016. According to Seatrade, the GCC has become the world’s third most popular cruise destination for the winter season; next-door Bahrain has booked 32 port calls for 2015/16, bringing some 68,000 passengers. This stream of vessels through the Gulf presents a sizeable and ready market that Qatar could tap more richly.

Port Redevelopment 

Plans are afoot to do just that. Following completion of the $7.4bn new ( commercial) Hamad Port in Mesaieed, south of the capital, the older Doha Port will be rejigged into a proper cruise ship terminal, according to Abdulla Al Khanji, CEO of Qatar Ports Management Company (Mwani). Though no contracts were yet tendered as of late 2015, the project was in final design stages, with Mwani reviewing the draft master plan. The work is sketched out in two phases: one to dredge the channel and port basin to allow heavier vessels, and to rebuild the quay wall into a docking station, and the other to carry out vertical construction, starting with site superstructures and proceeding with a passenger terminal and supporting facilities. Following a soft opening in December 2015, Hamad Port is to be fully operational by end-2016, when the revamp of Doha Port can begin in earnest. The entire project is scheduled to finish in time for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In the meantime, all cruise ships under 300m in length will dock at Doha Port as it undergoes redevelopment, while those over 300m will dock at Hamad Port.

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The Report: Qatar 2016

Tourism & Culture chapter from The Report: Qatar 2016

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