Middle East becoming cruise hotspot with new terminals

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With two new cruise terminals opening this month, could the Middle East knock the Caribbean off top spot for cruise tourism?

Finding somewhere to stop and berth a 100,000-ton cruise ship is a tricky business. Not only do cruise lines need a waterway deep enough and wide enough to get the thing in, they also need a port of call that is sufficiently interesting to entertain several thousand passengers for a day while the ship takes on supplies and carries out any vital maintenance. It helps, of course, if the area is also small enough to stop any intrepid cruise-goers from wandering off and missing the boat when it leaves again.

For years, the idyllic Caribbean islands have been fulfilling these needs. But the Middle East, which offers a rapidly growing tourism industry, sunshine and dazzlingly modern passenger facilities, is emerging as a strong contender. On February 19, Oman opened its first passenger cruise terminal Port Sultan Qaboos, a 3,300 square meter terminal that cost around €5.1 million to build. Over 300,000 tourists are expected to arrive at the port this year.

Its first guest - the Costa Delizosa - was actually en route to another new port due to open this week. She will be the first ship to be inaugurated at the new wing of the Dubai Cruise Terminal, which opens February 23. The Cruise Terminal signifies Dubai's continued determination to aggressively enter the cruise market, boasting duty-free stores, a VIP passenger section, an internet center and a big-screen entertainment center.

Dubai believes that it can become the cruise industry hub of the region. In 2009, it hosted 87 cruise ships that dropped 260,000 cruise tourists in the emirate and by 2015, it aims to swell those numbers to 195 ships and 575,000 passengers. Costa Deliziosa Costa Cruises now operates three ships in the region, whilst Royal Caribbean International recently announced its official entry into the Middle East with the docking of the "Brilliance of the Seas."

Dubai isn't the only emirate with its eye on the market, however. On February 22, a market study commissioned by the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority recommended the development of a similar dedicated cruise terminal in the country, to bring an extra 50,000 new visitors a year into Abu Dhabi. By transforming from a "port of call" to "home port," Abu Dhabi believes that it can "offer a richer destination experience to cruise liner guests who fall into [its] high-end visitor target."

"High-end" visitors are key to these efforts. The Florida & Caribbean Cruise Association (FCCA) estimates that a typical cruise ship carrying 2,000 passengers and 800 crew members conservatively generates around $190,000 (€139,726) in passenger and crew expenditures during a single port-of-call visit, and the Middle East is keen to get a piece of the action.

13.2 million people set sail in 2008, according to FCCA, 38 percent of them for the Caribbean. That number has dropped from 46 percent in 2005 although for the moment, the Middle East doesn't register in the top table of international cruise destinations. But with infinitely more funds available than its Caribbean competitors, it soon just might.

Cruise operators in the Middle East

Costa Cruises - http://www.costacruise.com/

Royal Caribbean - http://www.royalcaribbean.com

Azamara Cruises - http://www.azamaraclubcruises.com/

P&O Cruises - http://www.pocruises.com/