Monday, June 21, 2021

Cruising


Ahoy! ships are sailing
May 2021 1255

The summer of cruising is officially here! With historically low pricing, complimentary value-adds and never-before-seen money-back guarantees, there is no better time to book that cabin by the sea. We put together the lowdown on the hottest summer sailings, water-tight safety protocols onboard and a few nuggets of wisdom from the doyens shaping the future of regional cruising


While we wait for regional sailings to begin anew, major international cruise lines have already announced their return to sailing this summer after months of wait, meaning holidaymakers from the Gulf region can finally be on a cruise starting as early as this month.

“With ports from Saudi Arabia and Qatar joining the ranks of the already existing product in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, we have a much more diverse portfolio than before and therefore, more chances of getting international cruise lines interested in the region”
– Lakshmi Durai

 

We speak with a panel of passionate cruise experts who hope cruising will become as popular as a land holiday one day (if not more) in a ‘back to cruising’ roundtable, hosted and organised by team TTN, in association with the recently concluded Arabian Travel Market.

Our panel is made up of Mark Robinson, Chief Commercial & Operations Officer, Cruise Saudi; Maryam Saoud, Head of Tourism Product Support Section, Qatar National Tourism Council; Nick Wilkinson, Regional VP Business Development MEA, Norwegian Cruise Line; Lakshmi Durai, CEO, Discover the World – Middle East (sole regional representatives of Holland America Line, Seabourn and Windstar cruises); Ashok Kumar, Managing Director, Cruise Master (GSA for Princess, Cunard and P&O Cruises); and Mohamed Saeed, Managing Director, Royal Caribbean Int'l, Celebrity Cruises, Azamara & Silversea Cruises – Middle East (sole representatives of RCL brands).

Based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Mark Robinson has been in the travel and tourism industry for the last 35 years and is proud to be part of the country’s exciting cruise journey. “Cruise Saudi, previously known as the Red Sea Cruise Company, was launched by the Public Investment Fund (PIF) in January this year to develop the inbound cruise product in Saudi Arabia, firstly on the Red Sea coast, with five different ports, and also on the Gulf Coast, through our port of Dammam. 

“We have different job roles, one is to develop terminal operations, with Jeddah as our home port. We have identified a huge cruise ferry terminal, which will be operating this year. Secondly, Cruise Saudi will be a one-stop shop for the cruise in Saudi Arabia, liaising with the government in terms of cruise visas, port services, shore experience providers, etc. We are going to control the end-to-end experiences, the whole customer journey.

“We are happy to be working with MSC cruises this winter. MSC Magnifica will go on sale end of June in Saudi Arabia. Interestingly, guests of MSC Magnifica will have two shots at Formula One, one taking place this December in Saudi Arabia and another in March 2022.”

 

“The international market does not realise just how rich and varied the area is. Having visited the Gulf for over 19 years now, I am keen to see the region grow, eager to see more awareness about it globally and for the misperceptions to disappear”
– Nick Wilkinson

 

 

Maryam Saoud, Head of Tourism Product Support Section, Qatar National Tourism Council has been part of the country’s tourism team since it first initiated cruising in Qatar in 2015/16 cruise season. “We have evolved from a transit cruise destination to a turnaround destination. We position ourselves as a unique cruise destination. The Whale Sharks Expedition Cruise, the first publicly available trips to see these magnificent sea creatures in their natural habitat, has been launched by us recently and we are waiting to bring this product online when the time is right.”

The eight- to ten-night itineraries will likely be onboard the luxurious Le Champlain, one of the finest Ponant expedition vessels in the world. Qatar is home to one of the largest aggregations of Whale Sharks on the planet: The Whale Shark Research project in Qatar has recorded more than 600 Whale Shark in their database, making it a world record. Until now, the area that is home to Whale Sharks has been closed to the public, so very little is known about them.

“A new grand terminal will open in Doha port to be completed hopefully next year. With the introduction of sailing with whale sharks, we have made a foray into eco-tourism and expedition cruising, opting to offer a unique cruise product. Lots of on-shore explorations are also available through our partnerships with tour operators: a lot of cultural facilities are available near the Doha port itself such as Souq Waqif, Downtown Doha museum, Qatar National Museum, MIA, and more products are in the pipeline.

“Currently cruises are being welcomed into Doha port, which has been converted to a touristic port. We provide the same quality of service that guests receive at Hamad International Airport. In fact, we make sure passengers spend less than 60 minutes in the terminal,” she says.

Nick Wilkinson, Regional VP Business Development MEA, Norwegian Cruise Line, has been working and developing the Middle East cruise market for over 19 years. “It is an exciting time when we all return to the seas to offer our own styles of cruising. Norwegian Cruise Line offers contemporary vessels visiting some 300 destinations around the world, including our own private islands.

“We need to educate the region about the value that cruise brings, about the economic impact of a cruise. Turnaround passengers spend $220 on an average and transit passengers about $100, and we don’t even factor in the crew, who is always so excited to go explore and spend their money on the destinations”
– Mark Robinson

 

“Norwegian Cruise Line has been known to push boundaries for cruise. We want to take the best of land to sea on our floating resorts. One of the things that resonate particularly with the GCC market is our freedom and flexibility where you have a choice of over 20 dining venues, and you go to the venue suits you, whenever you want. You have 20 different entertainment options from Broadway shows to my personal favourite Cavern Club, which is under licence from the original Cavern Club in Liverpool. In terms of destinations, we cover Baltics right through to Asia, we even visit a few ports in the Middle East covering Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Muscat.

“When we come back to sea on July 25, we have 7-night Greek Isle tours, the demand on this itinerary from the market is very encouraging. Elsewhere in Europe we have also announced s out of Barcelona, Norwegian Getaway out of Rome offering 7-, 10- or 11-night itineraries.

“We clearly see a large pent-up demand of clients wanting to book and one key booking behaviour seems to have changed. The Middle East has always been known as a late-booking market, but we are surprised to see many bookings for 2022 and beyond where they are making sure they are getting the cruise they want and the suite category they want because they feel that they’ve missed out the last 12 months. The region is on the verge of such a change where cruise is becoming mainstream rather than a niche product.”

 

AMAZING IDEAS

Lakshmi Durai, who has been working in the regional cruise industry for the last 25 years, takes us through the cruise products that she feels will resonate well with the market. “Holland America Line, which specialises in Northern Europe cruises, and Seabourn, will be starting this July with Greek Isle cruises. We also have plans to launch new vessels this year: Holland America line will be launching the Rotterdam in August, which will be focusing on Northern European sailings when borders open. Seabourn is launching the brand-new boutique ship with 150 cabins, Seabourn Venture this December doing unique expedition cruises – Arctic in winter to see the Northern Lights and Antarctica and Amazon. There will be two submarines attached to the bottom of the ship, which can be used for underwater exploration mid-sea.

“The fact that cruise lines are coming up with these amazing ideas is a positive sign of things to come, combined with the fact that some of our cruises, for instance, the Artic cruises are fully booked.”

 

“We need to educate the region about the value that cruise brings, about the economic impact of a cruise. Turnaround passengers spend $220 on an average and transit passengers about $100, and we don’t even factor in the crew, who is always so excited to go explore and spend their money on the destinations”
– Mark Robinson

 

 

Cruise guru Ashok Kumar started Cruise Master 14 years ago and before that worked for international cruise lines for nearly 12 years. He has the GSA for Princess, Cunard and P&O Cruises and works with over two dozen cruise lines, providing agents with contemporary, premium and deluxe cruises around the world from ocean liners to river cruises and expedition Artic cruises. “Princess is a global cruise line with itineraries all over the globe with an immediate focus in Europe – we have two vessels currently based in Southampton in the UK. Cunard also has UK itineraries.”

Mohamed Saeed has been with Royal Caribbean International for the last six years but has worked in the Middle East now for 16 years, having started as travel trade and now as a supplier. “I represent Royal Caribbean International cruises, better known as the biggest, most elevated ships in the world - cities in the sea. Our products are fun-filled and adaptable to all ages, there are endless food and beverage and entertainment outlets.

“Starting this July, there will be a Greek Isle itinerary, with Mediterranean also expected to open very soon this July and August. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have given us a bit of a break, so we are hoping to see some of our US itineraries online and we are hoping for the Canadian government to allow us some grace so we can start our Alaska itineraries too.

“Celebrity is a bit more detailed oriented – it gives a bit more attention to cuisine and experiences onboard – our Celebrity Edge series – Celebrity Apex and Celebrity Beyond, which has taken over $1.2 billion to build, to put into perspective some of the biggest ships in the world Symphony was built on that kind of budget.

“Azamara and Silversea Cruises go into unique destinations, dock into less-travelled hidden gems. There is a niche market from the Middle East, special from Saudi, Qatar and UAE of cruisers who want to see something that is new and unique and expect that extra level of pampering. These brands are a good fit for them.”

 

“We really need a regional body of representation, a regional association that can echo the needs and feedback of travel trade partners. Equally, we need to present a united front to all principals and to cruise lines – we ought to speak as one voice”
– Mohamed Saeed

 

Safety has always been a key priority onboard cruise ships, even before the pandemic – the current situation has merely required cruise lines to enhance health and safety. After shutting all sailing for over a year, every cruise line has been extra cautious in planning their return. The market is constantly evolving, so cruise lines are constantly updating measures – common themes include social distancing, wearing masks on board, muster gatherings to be done on an app rather than physically and so on.

NCL’s Nick Wilkinson says, “Health and safety of guests and crew is paramount. Every crew member is fully vaccinated, there are enhanced screening protocols during the sails, there is trained medical assistance on board. Cruise in general has very high santisation measures but we have seen how we can take that even further. We have to extend that safety ashore, ensuring we are extending the same safety to our land-based operators.” 

Ashok Kumar weighs in, “Of all the segments in the travel business, it is only the cruise liners that have been mandated to report each and every case on board that needs medical attention. They follow strict medical protocols and procedures as laid down by the CDC as well as the local health authority. All this is being enhanced with testing labs on board ships, space for isolation should any case materialise on board. Cruise lines are also liaising with local ports so positive cases can disembark mid-way and be provided proper medical care.”

Mohamed Saeed talk about a specially appointed health panel, “Our panel of health advisors consists of experts that governments take cues from.”

Lakshmi says, “If it is safe to do a land trip, it is equally safe to do a cruise holiday: rails and staircases exist on land-based properties as well.

“Our book with confidence policy is worth noting, where cruisers can get 100 per cent credit back if they cancel their booking 30 days prior to sailing. There is a lot of uncertainty around Covid so people can rest assured that if their plans do change, they will get their money back.”

 

MANAGING WELL

Meanwhile Robinson of Cruise Saudi reminds us that TUI and MSC have been sailing very successfully in Europe these past few months. Costa Deliziosa has also been doing its sailings. “The protocols have been in place. The protocols have been working. MSC Cruises don’t even require you to have a vaccination, they have managed it so well.”

 

“With the advent of technology, booking a cruise today is as easy as ABC. More importantly, it comes with a massive commission: you get a cut on the accommodation, entertainment as well as the F&B, as opposed to booking a hotel where you would typically earn something only on the basic room rental”
– Ashok Kumar

 

While every cruise line is cognizant of the fact that strict safety measures have to be taken to check the spread of Covid-19 on their vessels, not all brands agree on every measure. While some will allow children onboard, others are only open to adults. Most cruises will permit fully vaccinated guests only. “This is partly because the situation is constantly evolving. Take the example of kids, for instance. If you are 12 and under you can now get a vaccine in the US. Rules will keep evolving to adapt to the situation, which is changing rapidly.

“One of the bigger challenges right now is the crew, our poor colleagues in India are going through a particularly tough phase, and this is a challenge for the industry – how to get our crew back because a lot of our crew members are from the Subcontinent.”

Maryam adds, “The current situation requires strong collaboration between destinations and the cruise lines. Working alone is not the answer – neither for the cruise line, nor the destination, as this will achieve nothing. We are positive that people will not stop travelling. We aim to have everyone vaccinated in Qatar by this October, before the cruise season starts, ensuring we are welcoming cruises in a safe environment.”

Robinson reiterates the importance of collaboration: citing the example of Barcelona, he says even in the best of times ports become successful after decades of collaboration from the tourism board, port authorities, cruise lines, airlines, DMCs, visa-issuing authorities and every such touchpoint. “The whole region has to work together too – Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries, the Middle East as a whole – there is huge opportunity here. We are much stronger when we stand together. I will be working very closely with CLIA as well.”

A lot of work lies ahead to mainstream cruising in the Middle East and make it a cruise first destination but the task will get easier with the development of new, multiple ports in the region. While collaboration is the answer, the first obvious requirement for any cruise line to even consider a destination is the presence of ports, reminds Lakshmi. “We need more ports in the Middle East to firmly put the region on the global cruising map. With ports from Saudi Arabia and Qatar joining the ranks of the already existing product in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, we have a much more diverse portfolio than before and therefore, more chances of getting international cruise lines interested in the region.

Lakshmi continues, “As people see more vessels docking in the ports, the awareness of cruising will increase manifold. The proof is in the pudding.”

Wilkinson points out, “The international market does not realise just how rich and varied the Middle East is. I am very passionate about the region. I keen to see the region grow, eager to see more awareness about it globally and for the misperceptions about the Middle East to disappear.”

 

“A new grand terminal will open in Doha port to be completed hopefully next year. With the introduction of sailing with whale sharks, Qatar has made a foray into eco-tourism and expedition cruising, opting to offer a unique cruise product”
– Maryam Saoud

 

The economic impact of cruises is huge: local vendors, merchants everyone benefits, reminds Robinson. “We need to educate the region about the value that cruise brings. Everyone knows that turnaround passengers spend $220 on an average and transit passengers about $100, but we don’t even factor in the crew, who is always so excited to go explore new destinations and spend their money on destinations.” 

There is an imminent need of a regional cruise association that provides a channel of communication between all stakeholders. Mohamed Saeed points out, “We really need a body of representation, an association that can echo the needs and feedback of travel trade partners. Equally, we need an association to present a united front to all principals and to cruise lines and speak as one voice, with fair representation from all the GCC countries.”

All four cruise professionals insist that changing times and technology have made it ever so simple to book cruises. “Booking a cruise is no different from booking any other holiday. It is a seamless process, all information is uploaded in advance of travel and the whole process is touchless,” says Saeed.

It’s very simple, agrees Wilkinson, there are just four room categories to choose from!

“Even Mice trips are so easy to book in a cruise when compared to a land-based incentive trip. Everything is already packaged and many elements even come complimentary,” adds Lakshmi.

“With the advent of technology, booking a cruise today is as easy as ABC. More importantly, it comes with a massive commission: you get a cut on the accommodation, entertainment as well as the F&B, as opposed to booking a hotel where you would typically earn something only on the basic room rental,” concludes Kumar of Cruise Master.

It’s time to get on that boat!

 


 

CRUISE: KEY FACTS

According to Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), 74 per cent of cruisers are likely to cruise in the next few years; 2 out of 3 cruisers are willing to cruise within a year; and 58 per cent of international vacationers who have never cruised are likely to cruise in the next few years. These positive statistics released in CLIA’s annual 2021 State of the Cruise Industry Outlook also mention that there will be 20 new ships debuting this year.





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