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The Middle East cruise sector has “huge” potential despite the Red Sea crisis

The Middle East’s cruise sector is lagging behind global competition as it tries to navigate the difficult waters of the Red Sea crisis, but industry experts say the region still has strong growth potential.

Major cruise operators have adjusted itineraries or canceled sailings amid attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on commercial ships in the key shipping lane.

Dave Goodger, managing director of EMEA Tourism Economics, an Oxford Economics company, said the number of secondments to the Red Sea is down from last year and occupancy is slightly lower, but the industry has shown “very resilience”.

“There is this perception of risk and (tourism) is driven by perception,” Goodger said during a panel discussion at the Arabian Travel Market exhibition in Dubai, which ends on Thursday.

Residents of the region need to be more aware that they can swim in our own backyard. They don’t have to fly six hours to the Mediterranean or 15 hours to the Caribbean

Saud Hareb Almheiri

“When adverse effects occur, people tend to stay away, but travelers come back.

“It’s having an impact today, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to have an impact on the industry tomorrow.”

“We are very confident”

While cruise travel is outpacing broader demand for international travel across the world, except in Asia, economic recovery in the Middle East is slower, according to a new Tourism Economics report.

While, for example, cruise ship occupancy in the Caribbean is 111 percent and in the Mediterranean it is 107 percent, in the Middle East and Africa it is 90 percent.

However, the report added that the region’s long-term potential is clear once safe passage through the Suez Canal is possible.

Turky Kari, executive director of marketing and corporate communications at Saudi Arabia’s Aroya Cruises, said that when the first ship sails in December, it will sail through the Red Sea.

“We are very confident and all the Red Sea authorities and the government of Saudi Arabia support this 100 percent,” he said.

Aroya is managed by Cruise Saudi, a cruise company owned by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. It plans to launch three cruise ships within 10 years, add seven new ports by 2030 and reach 1.3 million passengers annually.

The first cruises will last three nights and will depart from Jeddah, then spend a day at sea before heading to a private island along the Red Sea coast. In January, there will be a seven-day cruise that will visit Jeddah, Ain Sokhna and Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, and Aqaba in Jordan. Aroya is also planning a cruise on the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea.

A stronger GCC cruise sector

The potential of the cruise sector in the region is “huge,” said Saud Hareb Almheiri, head of cruise tourism and sailing at Dubai’s Department of Economy and Tourism. “But people in the region need to be more aware that they can swim in our own backyard. They don’t have to fly six hours to the Mediterranean or 15 hours to the Caribbean.

That’s why the Cruise Arabian Alliance was formed in March to support cooperation in the region as countries work together to maintain service levels and educate the market.

“We are strong, but together we are stronger,” Almheiri said.

Lakshmi Durai, chief executive of Middle East cruise agency CruiseExplore, said the more cruise ships there are in the region, the better for the sector. “One cruise line is not competitive with another cruise line,” she said. “Every year a huge number of people go here for land holidays. Instead of staying on a ship, why not go on a cruise?

“Cruises are very easy to sell. The offer is all inclusive, you can see many locations during one holiday, there are no flight costs. A cruise on the Bay is a fantastic winter vacation.”

Partnerships and packages are key

The possibilities go beyond just a vacation, Kari added, and said Cruise Saudi is also considering developing wedding packages.

Almheiri believes that maritime events are the next area of ​​growth. “There is no awareness at the moment, but I strongly believe it will happen in the near future,” he said. “Hosting events at sea will be different, perhaps for smaller cruise ships rather than larger ones.”

International cruise ships have also shown interest in extending the season into summer, Almheiri added.

Goodger’s findings showed greater demand for longer cruises, but also strong demand for shorter cruises. “The key is to offer many different packages to suit different ways of traveling,” he said.

“People also spend the night in a location before or after a cruise, so land-based tourism can be complementary, and destination benefits can support the destination port with the right infrastructure.”

Partnerships are key, Mr. Almheiri agreed. “Over the last year and a half, more has been happening in this ecosystem, driven by demand and growing interest,” he said.

This includes Emirates’ new two-year partnership with MSC Cruises, which enables passengers to book fly fishing holiday packages including return flights from 21 airports in Europe and South America. The agreement was reached on Wednesday at the Arabian Travel Market.

Ultimately, the future of the industry is bright, Goodger said. “Overall, when I focus on travel as a whole, in the face of so much economic disruption, I use two words: cautious optimism,” he said. “But if we’re talking about cruising, it’s optimistic.”

Updated: May 9, 2024, 11:00