Middle East Region Vying for Your Cruise Dollars

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The Middle East region is vying for your cruise dollars. Timing is everything, or so the saying goes.  Unfortunately for those living in and looking to visit parts of the Middle East this is a difficult time given the devastating conflict in Israel and Gaza and other hot spots around the region.

We’ve previously covered the impact on some cruisers and cruise lines impacted by the cancellation of port visits – When Your Dream $20,000 Cruise Becomes a Nightmare – Oceania Dramatic Changes to Itinerary Due to Global Conflicts.  This had me thinking about cruising in the Middle East more generally.

Historically the Middle East has not been a very active cruise region despite it’s proximity to the extremely popular Mediterranean cruise region.  While Istanbul and Israel (ports of Haifa, Ashdod, and Eilat) have been popular ports on cruise itineraries for more than a decade, ebbing and flowing based on perceived stability in the region, the rest of the Middle East hadn’t, until recently, been that popular with cruisers.

According to Wikipedia, there are currently no Middle Eastern cruise ports in the world’s top 50 busiest, with the Port of Dubai at number 55 on the list.  With an overall effort to expand tourism in the region pushed by Dubai, Qatar, and most recently Saudi Arabia, there have been moves to attract more cruisers.  In fact, Qatar has recently opened a new cruise port in the capital city of Doha to expand cruise-based tourism and attract embarkations and debarkations adding business for their hotels and of course their national airline – Qatar Airways which we recently reviewed.

Qatar Airways QSuites Athens to Atlanta via Doha
Image Credit: Qatar Airways Media Kit

The 2022/2023 Qatari cruise season marked a record number of visits with 54 cruise ship stops between December 2022 and April 2023, marking a 151% increase in visitors according to Qatar Tourism.  Ships from Ponant, Costa, AIDA, Tui, Emerald, Ocean Odyssey, and MSC all called on the port.  MSC had the most stops with 13 while Mein Schiff 6 operated by TUI Cruises had several overnight stops in Doha.  It’s interesting that European cruise lines have accounted for all the ships that have docked while lines catering to Americans were absent during the season.

Qatar Tourism put out a press release on October 27, 2023 announcing the arrival of Crystal Symphony marking the beginning of the 2023/2024 cruise season and predicted a meaningful increase over last season’s volume:

Crystal Symphony Docked in Doha, Qatar
Image Credit – Qatar Tourism

 “The luxury cruise ship, ‘Crystal Symphony,’ arrived in Doha today, marking the opening of Qatar Tourism’s 2023/2024 cruise season. The new cruise season will run to April 2024 and is expected to welcome 81 cruise calls and approximately 350,000 passengers, making it the country’s biggest cruise season yet.” 

This was a big step for Qatar as Crystal caters overwhelming to the US cruise market.  Cruising is an important “pillar” of Qatar’s economic diversification strategies as they look to build an economy less focused on the production of oil.  The press release included a quote from his Excellency Capt. Abdullah Mohammed Al-Khanji, CEO of Mwani Qatar:

“With the start of the new season, our focus continues on providing the best possible experience to passengers by improving cruise facilities and enhancing world-class services in the State of Qatar, in accordance with the Ministry of Transport’s strategic plan aimed to make Qatar a preferred destination for cruise travelers in the region. “

a cruise ship docked in the water

The same press release stated that Norwegian Dawn is scheduled to dock in Qatar this season and NCL is still selling cruises departing on January 3, 2024 and January 24, 2024 departing from Doha, Qatar with stops in Dubai and Fujairah in UAE as well as Muscat, Oman before heading to the Seychelles, Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, and ending in Muaritius.

NCL Africa UAE Seychelles 17 day itinerary NCL Africa UAE Seychelles 17 day map

Given the recent changes with NCLH’s Oceania Cruises and Regent Seven Seas cancelling stops in the UAE, Oman, and Qatar it’s possible that these cruises may also have major itinerary changes.

While Qatar is looking to lure cruise lines and their passengers to visit, Saudi Arabia is taking it one step further by starting their own commercial cruise line.  Launched in 2021 Cruise Saudi is a 100% Public Investment Fund (“PIF”).  PIF is a sovereign wealth fund with $700 billion (USD) in assets under management including 92 companies in 13 strategic sectors according to their website.  In March of 2022 Cruise Saudi announced that they had named industry veteran Lars Clasen as CEO.  Mr. Clasen had most recently served as Managing Director at the Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection and had also worked with AIDA Cruises and A-ROSA River Cruises.  In March of 2023 Cruise Saudi announced a major step forward via a press release in the Saudi Gazette, that they purchased their first ship the World Dream at auction during the pandemic (pictured below in its previous Genting paint scheme). The ship was previously operated by Genting Hong Kong that is still operating sister ship Genting Dream.

a large cruise ship with colorful designs on it
Image Credit – Meyer Werft (ship builder)

The ship has a new name – Manara (meaning Light in Arabic) and is currently in dry dock being updated to meet the requirements of a Middle Eastern clientele. Details are somewhat scarce, but it’s likely that the 150,695 Gross Ton mega ship that was originally built for the Asian cruise market will be losing its casino amongst other changes. With a former capacity of 5,000 passengers this is a bold move for Cruise Saudi.

Cruise Saudi isn’t just focused on their new ship, they’re also interested in attracting cruise passengers.  With Saudi Arabia only recently opening to tourism in the last few years, they’ve made great strides but have huge ambition for future growth.  Saudi Gazette noted that, “Cruise Saudi has completed two successful seasons thus far; welcoming 50,000+ passengers and five major international cruise lines; and in the future, aims to attract more cruise lines and 1.3 million cruise passengers to experience Saudi via sea by 2035.”

 In January of this year India’s Adani Group completed a $1.15 billion (USD) acquisition of Haifa Port, from Haifa Port Company controlled by the government of Israel, with plans to complete improvements including construction of the first purpose-built cruise passenger port in Israel.  An article in The Jerusalem Post noted that the transaction took almost five years to be completed.  Adani Group owned by one of the world’s richest people in the world, Gautam Adani, with a net worth of $125 billion (USD) is already the largest commercial ports operator in India.

On November 2nd Reuters reported that Ron Malka, Haifa Port’s Executive Chairman said “Israel’s war in Gaza won’t derail plans to expand the country’s northern Mediterranean port of Haifa into a major trade hub between Asia and Europe, and any disruptions are expected to be temporary.”  While that may be true for cargo, the story is very different for cruise activity.

The near-term future of cruising in the Middle East remains extremely uncertain as the world continues to watch the region with concern.  Long term, it’s clear that the region is looking to become a major player in the global cruise industry with over $150 billion in annual economic activity (Source: CLIA).   With the Middle East region vying for your cruise dollars, do you think the future of cruising in the region has a promising future?  – Michael         

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