The Gulf cruise industry is looking for opportunities to grow in scale and tourist numbers on the back of mega regional events.
At the annual Seatrade Middle East Cruise Forum held in Doha, where TTN was invited and hosted, regional port developers, tourism authorities as well as cruise executives deliberated the best strategies to pull in tourist numbers and deliver attractive regional cruise packages to tourists.
The region is looking to position itself as a leading winter destination, to draw in, among others, tourists from the northern hemisphere looking for a temperate and culturally diverse region to explore during their winter holidays.
As part of the strategy to attract tourists to the region, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Sharjah, Qatar formed the Cruise Arabia alliance three years ago to share regional port and shore-side best practises. At the Doha forum, Bahrain announced that it too was joining the club.
NEW HAMAD PORT
Host nation Qatar, which is strategising its tourism policy to keep up with tourists for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, is developing infrastructure to cope with the large numbers.
The $7.4 billion Hamad Port, located 25 km away from capital Doha and stretching over 26 square km will open for business and for tourists through its cruise terminal from 2016 onwards.
The cruise facility is temporary, as the old Doha Port, which faces the traditional Souq Waqif as well as the carefully curated Museum of Islamic Art, undergoes renovation to become a full-fledged cruise terminal.
'The GCC has been one of the top three main winter destinations and from day one Qatar’s tourism strategy has come close to the tourism area. Qatar is a promising tourism destination,' says Qatar Tourism Authority chief tourism development officer Hassan al Ibrahim.
'We expect five ships to reach Qatar between April and May. Between 2016 and 2017. We expect in excess of 50,000 visitors with 130,000 visitors expected in the coming years.'
MEETING ROOM TARGET
Doha is ambitiously creating infrastructure including hotels and entire cities from scratch to cater to the multitudes who will throng Qatar to watch the World Cup.
Developing a cruise industry forms part of the strategy as the ships will play host to an estimated 6,000 rooms – a plan to make the games more sustainable and eco-friendly.
'Qatar as a destination has grown at a phenomenal rate of 40 per cent in 2014,' adds al Ibrahim.
'We’re about to receive three million tourists this year and we expect to receive four million by 2020 or 2022.
'The target of rooms for 2020 is 62,000. We’re half way through now with 30,000 to 32,000 rooms. So there is growth in the region and Qatar is witnessing this growth.
'The cruise industry is playing a phenomenal role in enriching this growth.
'It is helping us understand tourists more and helping us grow vertically into diversifying the experience for them.'
However, the big challenge for cruise executives as well as regional tourism authorities is product differentiation and branding to appeal to North American and European tourists as well as those from emerging markets such as China and India.
For the British source market, winter cruise tourism in the region is ideal given the proximity, air connectivity as well as the climate.
'From our source market the UK, the proximity to this region is very attractive as it requires only six and half hours in flight time,' says Chris Coates, commercial director at UK-based Cruise & Maritime Voyages.
'The airlift options are very attractive in two or three entry points in this region.
'One of the biggest attractions for our customers who are mostly in their late fifties, early sixties is the climate for the winter.
'Great sun, not too hot, infrastructure is very strong and there is a rich diversity of places to visit in the region.
'We’re looking at a wider range of options, extending even to India and Goa.'
Apart from extending regional cruise package to include Indian destinations, cruise executives were of the consensus that the Gulf package promotion had to be better refined to attract passengers.
'We need to think of the marketing message for the region, for each port and why people want to to come here,' says Bruce Krumrine, vice-president – shore excursions, at US-based Holland America Group.
'I think we need to really refine those messages. Apart from Dubai, for most North Americans, I think there is very little that is understood.
'Clearly, you’re able to communicate well with Europe and I think you need to look at North America with fresh eyes.
'Dubai has done very well. Today it is seen as one of those bucket list destinations, so how do we leverage that?'
For western markets, itinerary development for now is geared towards promoting an ‘Arabian’ package, as opposed to a Middle East-focussed tour.
'The word Arabia has a particular appeal to it, especially for people from North America who are geographically challenged. It is a branding opportunity to use brand Dubai and expand on that,' says Krumrine.
'Arabia conjures up images of mysticism about the whole region, which tourists like. The Gulf is an interesting name, but a neutral one,' adds Coates.
However, for tourists from China and India, who have begun visiting Dubai in large numbers and will come calling in at Doha and other Cruise Arabia ports, the biggest challenge is immigration.
The GCC has no unified visa policy and some cruise agents at the forum complained about arbitrary rules and delayed processes.
With the growing middle class in Asia looking to travel and spend money in the Gulf, a more thoughtful visa policy will encourage this trend executives agreed.
Speaking on the sidelines of the forum, Hamad Mohammed Bin Mejren, senior vice-president, department of tourism and commerce marketing, Dubai Tourism outlines how the UAE’s launch of a cruise visa had significantly cut down costs as well as brought in more passengers from their new key target markets.
'Earlier when passengers had to leave the country, to go to Oman and come back, they would need another visa,' he says.
'Just over a year ago, we announced a specific visa for cruise passengers only.
'This is done to attract new key markets for us – India, China, South America, Russia and the CIS countries.
'Before this announcement, visa used to cost up to 30 per cent of the cost of the voyage.
'It’s now only $50 multiple entry for cruise passengers and this has opened up two key markets India and China, so this will come to yield huge potential flow in the future. Not only for the UAE but also for the region.'
Qatar Tourism Authority’s Al Ibrahim also adds that the authority is complying with cruise alliance requirements and is in the process of 'enhancing the visa process'.
Having a common visa policy will come in most handy when the region gears to tackle a large influx of tourists in a span of two years – between Dubai’s Expo 2020 and the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Doha. The idea is to use tourism and hospitality infrastructure in both countries to support both events.
'The biggest burden is the Expo 2020 and the World Cup and the period between two events is barely two years,' says Esam Ahmed, manager-commercial, DP World.
'Dubai is building additional 80,000 hotel rooms for the Expo.
'The number of visitors will be for a period of six months and we will be left with one year and half for the World Cup.
'So regional support will definitely help Expo 2020.'
Holland America’s Krumrine doesn’t think the challenge will be overwhelming for the region as the World Cup for one, takes place in November, a time when cruise ships would already have been deployed in the Gulf.
'It will be easier to find ships to charter since we don’t have to bring ships in over longer distances,' he says.
While mega events and the winter sun can be a definite draw, the Gulf’s brutal summer months drive locals and expatriates to cooler climates. Regional tourism executives shared that extending the seasonality of the industry is currently being explored, with the Gulf’s searing temperatures not considered detrimental to developing an all-weather tourist industry.
'The government is thinking of how to extend the seasonality of tourism in Dubai itself. That’s why they created The Dubai Mall, Dubai Sky, the summer festival,' says DP World’s Ahmed.
'Now the government is going ahead with a temperature-controlled living community.
'A lot of my international friends come to The Dubai Mall and they stay in The Dubai Mall for one week and they go home.
'It’s temperature controlled. It’s a creative idea to extend seasonality.
'In Dubai, we can work collectively with cruise executives to extend the seasonality.'
While Qatar is eager, along with latest entrant Bahrain to jump onto the cruising bandwagon, the Seatrade Middle East Forum saw a clear lack of representation from Saudi Arabia, which along with Kuwait is not a member of Cruise Arabia.
While the kingdom has made cautious announcements to bring in foreign tourists, it hasn’t displayed enthusiastic moves to revamp its bureaucracy to utilise tourism as a lucrative source of revenue for its oil-dependent economy.
When asked about Saudi Arabia joining the alliance, Bin Mejren expresses hope that more regional ports will open up to cruise tourists.
'I don’t know about Saudi Arabia, but definitely with more destinations, more options in the area, the more attractive the region will be,' he says.
'Cruise Arabia alliance is working very hard to enhance all regions and facilities, and all operations to secure the destinations.
'We have some problems in some parts in terms of immigration and so on.
'Definitely more destinations is good.'
By Jennifer Gnana
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