The cruise tourism segment is showing itself to be increasingly capable of boosting Abu Dhabi’s status as an international destination, while further supporting moves to diversify economic growth beyond the hydrocarbons sector. The emirate is expecting increased arrivals and greater tourist footfall onshore thanks to the decision by top cruise companies to “home port” their vessels in Abu Dhabi. This means that cruise companies will base their ships there throughout the season, before and after voyages, making Abu Dhabi the entry point for a greater number of guests who might not otherwise have the opportunity to experience what Abu Dhabi’s tourism sector offers. Aside from the prestige of being chosen as a home port location, this will mean greater exposure to international travellers and new opportunities for tourists to make use of local amenities.
A new purpose-built cruise terminal now enables cruise ships to dock and berth in Abu Dhabi. In November 2015 two European cruise lines, MSC and Aida, announced they will begin their cruises from Abu Dhabi; in 2016 Celebrity Cruises will be added to the list. The number of ships in rotation – docking in weekly callings – during 2015 was up on 2014 from five to seven ships, and from 90 to 114 individual calls to port.
This increased cruise traffic is expected to bring direct and indirect economic benefits to the wider economy, for both Abu Dhabi and the wider UAE. Some of the positive knock-on effects that are expected include greater activity at Abu Dhabi International Airport, expanded hotel use before and after cruise launches, more taxi and restaurant expenditures and other tourism spends. Onshore attractions and the ever-growing awareness of Abu Dhabi as a travel destination are other central factors that are forecast to bring about higher numbers of cruise guests opting for day trips ashore, and for choosing to visit greater numbers of attractions in the emirate.
Saeed Al Dhaheri, cruise tourism and city tour development manager at the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi), told OBG that the TCA Abu Dhabi’s goal is to “get the Gulf and Arab cruise experience here in Abu Dhabi”, making the Gulf a central hub for regional and international cruise tourism. To help achieve this, the TCA Abu Dhabi has formed an alliance in marketing and promotion with Cruise Arabia, together with regional neighbours Bahrain, Oman, Qatar and fellow emirates, to promote Gulf locations and the “winter sun” destination to international markets. Through this alliance, each partner expects to benefit from shared buying power for events, including road shows and joint promotional activities. The goal is to put the Gulf on par with traditional cruise destinations like the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. A key attribute of the strategy is to differentiate the visitor experience in each of the Gulf states at the various ports of call.
A new cruise visa, introduced in late 2014, will ease the administrative processes as passengers move from ship to shore. This multi-entry visa is now available for passport holders from source markets that had previously required separate visas for each national port of call. These countries include India, Russia, China and Brazil. This aligns well with the key growth markets for Abu Dhabi’s cruise sector, which include major emerging tourist source countries such as China, India and South Africa. Abu Dhabi is challenging South Africa’s own domestic cruise market head-on, and new agreements among major tour operators are bolstering the emirate’s position.
TCA Abu Dhabi also boosted the sector through a cruise-focused industry development committee for tourism in 2014. The aim of the committee is to raise passenger numbers from 200,000 in 2014 to 300,000 by 2020. In 2015 this goal garnered enthusiastic support and brought in businesses all along the value chain and from outside of the traditional cruise segment. This includes airlines such as Etihad Airways, ports and related services. As Al Dhaheri told OBG, “Tourism, ports and Etihad make up a triangle,” with collaboration across the board supported by TCA Abu Dhabi. This collaboration includes price incentives, loyalty agreements and support in tactical joint marketing. The numbers are steady for now, with European passengers dominating the region’s cruise component.
A key difference concerns the length of the winter season, which has begun to start earlier and extend well beyond its traditional cut-off point. Customer demographics are also changing. The average passenger age has fallen from 50 in 2011 to 46 in 2014. This trend is expected to continue, the cruise business is keeping pace with this shift by rolling out a host of new offerings. These changes range from quality and style of food served on-board, to the types of events and entertainment offered, and are calibrated to appeal to younger guests. New attractions and formats are also diversifying the cruise experience. This will include a new beach stopover destination on Sir Bani Yas Island, the first of its kind in the Gulf for cruise tourism, and which is due to come on-stream in 2016. The island contains a number of luxury hotels, national wildlife reserves and the remnants of the oldest Christian monastery in the region, along with other natural and water sports attractions. Sir Bani Yas Island is a unique destination that embodies the diversity of the emirate’s offerings. These attractions are also taking into account the broader cultural aspects of tourism. For example, the UAE is now home to a burgeoning halal tourist industry – Abu Dhabi hosted the World Halal Travel Summit in 2015 – and the global halal travel market is projected to be worth $238bn by 2019. The cruise industry views these types of events as a promising area for future tourism growth. By diversifying the range of options and destination choices, easing access for passengers from key source markets and attracting more cruise lines to home port at Abu Dhabi, the cruise segment is helping increase tourism.
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