Cruise Tourism gaining popularity in the Middle East

As a capital-intensive industry, cruise tourism can generate significant economic and social benefits for coastal destinations. The latest Economic Impact Report (EIR) by World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) revealed that the travel and tourism sector in the Middle East is expected to generate around 3.6 million new jobs over the next decade. A Future Market Insights report also indicated that the global cruise tourism industry is likely to grow to over 17.4 USD by 2032. With the development of modern ports in cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi, as well as the commitment from other countries in the region toward enhancing this sector, the Middle East has become a central hub for cruise lines. Offering a convenient starting point for journeys to the Arabian Peninsula, the Red Sea, and the Persian Gulf, the Middle East offers a unique experience to potential tourists. With the sector growing and demand increasing, Dr Sean Lochrie, Assistant Professor at Edinburgh Business School at Heriot-Watt University Dubai shares insights on the cruise tourism industry in the Middle East.

As the Post-Covid era continues, so does traveller confidence in once again exploring the world and engaging in popular tourist activities such as cruises. Encouragingly, passenger traffic and the number of cruise calls are almost back to pre-pandemic levels in the Middle East. During the 2021-2022 cruise season, Dubai received 98 ship calls and over 330,000 passengers and crew. Additionally, Qatar and Oman have also seen the sector grow. For example, Qatar Tourism has reported that the country received 58,000 passengers and crew members from 18 cruise ship calls during the first half of the 2021-2022 season. Furthermore, the Tourism Ministry of Oman, reported that 99 cruise ships visited the sultanate during the 2021-2022 season. Importantly, wider Middle Eastern regions such as Cyprus, Egypt, and Jordan, have also benefitted from the resurgence the sector. The recent emergence of Saudi Arabia as a destination for cruise tourism has also diversified the Middle East offering. Adding to its existing cruise destinations such as Yanbu and Jeddah, in January 2023, the MSC World Europa become the first cruise ship to enter Dammam’s King Abdulaziz Port, reinforcing the country’s position as a growing force within this sector.

The strong resurgence and growth of the cruise sector in the Middle East can also be attributed to strong governmental will and cooperation and collaboration between the public and private stakeholders. Such support is essential given the sector’s desired and anticipated growth. Government investment in infrastructure is critical to boosting cruise tourism in the Middle East. In the UAE, several of the Emirates have invested in improving their terminals. For example, situated close to both of Dubai’s airports, the Dubai Harbour Cruise Terminal is the region’s first-ever dedicated cruise facility. Outside the UAE, other Middle Eastern regions have also committed to developing their facilities and accessibility. For example, Cruise Saudi is aiming to develop infrastructure in the ports of Jizan and Duba. Additionally, in Jordan, a collaboration between the government and the UAE’s Abu Dhabi Ports Group witnessed the opening of the first cruise terminal in Aqaba in 2023, with 50 ships expected to dock at the site over the next few months. The opening of this terminal is part of a long-term collaborative project with the aim to enhance the tourism industry in Jordon and Aqaba.

Located at the intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa, the Middle East boasts a rich cultural heritage and a diverse range of tourist destinations, making it a desirable destination for cruise passengers. To accommodate larger ships and improve the passenger experience, countries in the region have been actively upgrading their port infrastructure. With the continuous support of governments and industry stakeholders, the Middle East is poised to take advantage of the expanding trend of cruise tourism and continue to draw more visitors in the years to come.

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