Smooth sailing

TTN Middle East collaborated with leading cruise lines to celebrate the region’s first-ever Cruise Awareness Day, held in Dubai on March 11, 2022. Nearly 180 trade professionals attended the event and tuned into an insightful panel discussion


The objective of the Cruise Awareness Day event was to prepare the regional trade for the upcoming cruise season and to deep dive into the industry, to rebuild knowledge and confidence in cruising, to make useful contacts and leave as cruise enthusiasts, armed with information, support and positivity in cruising.

A panel discussion moderated by  TTN Middle East and led by field experts was followed by brand- and product-specific information and updates for the travel trade. Everything from the size of the cruise industry and its gradual return to the waters, key safety protocols, port and destination requirements, to tips and tricks of booking a cruise were up for discussion. Representatives from Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, Silversea, Azamara, Holland America Line, Seabourn, MSC Cruises, Disney Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Cunard, P&O Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Line were on hand to answer brand- and product-specific questions.

Our panellists included the who’s who of the cruising world in the Middle East: cruise guru Ashok Kumar, Managing Director, Cruise Master; Lakshmi Durai, Chief Executive, Discover The World – Middle East; Michael English, Head of Business Development, Europe Middle East and Africa – Celebrity Cruises; Mohamed Saeed, Managing Director, Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, Azamara & Silversea Cruises – Middle East; Daniel Rosado, Director GCC & Iran for Spain Tourism; Karthik Radhakrishnan, Sales Manager, MSC Cruises GCC & Sri Lanka; and Asif Hussain, Manager – Outbound Leisure, Al Tayer Group. 

Our first panellist Ashok Kumar addressed the question of size – exactly how big the cruise industry is and specifically how big is a vessel. “When I started my career in the cruise industry, some 28 years ago, the average size of a cruise ship was about 70,000 tonnes. Today, the largest cruise ship afloat is 228,000 tonnes and takes roughly 6,900 guests plus a crew of 2,300.

“When the cruise industry in Dubai started, and it started from Port Rashid (Mina Rashid), operational since 1972, where the QE 2 is docked at the moment, that used to be the only port. Driven by the government’s vision, over three decades, Dubai has grown to accommodate two cruise ports with three passenger terminals - two terminals in Port Rashid and two new that opened in 2020 and in Dubai Harbour – the Palm Island Cruise Terminals,” he tells us.

Cruise Line International Association (CLIA) is the world's largest cruise industry trade association with representation in North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australasia.

Most of the cruise lines are member of CLIA and those member cruise lines together represent nearly 95 per cent of the total capacity in the cruise business. There are some 50 different cruise lines all over the world - not all of them are the CLIA members and all in all, roughly half a million berths are available on any given day in the cruise business, Ashok tells us.

“Wherever there's water we have a cruise ship for you, not necessarily on the oceans and seas but also on the rivers,” Ashok says with a smile.

“Cruise lines are operating all over the world – the Mediterranean, the Greek Isles, Alaska, Southern Europe – these are easy to reach from here as well as the access and the airlift is pretty good. There’s also North and South America, Antarctica and Arctic cruises - that gives you a fair idea of how big the cruise industry is.”

Like any other industry in March 2020, the cruising industry came to a halt. CLIA and cruise line veterans worked very hard and worked very closely with governments of different destinations to bring back cruising. Lakshmi Durai throws light on the gradual and important resumption of cruising over the last couple years. “The resumption of cruising doesn't mean just putting thousands of people back into work. It also means supporting a lot of ancillary businesses that are depending on cruising to resume, starting from the small souvenir shop at the port to companies that supply food and other necessities.

“Cruising has become a model for responsible travel. It is important for cruise industry to be back for so many people to survive and thrive,” Lakshmi says.

In just four months by July 2020, some ships had already started coming back. “About 29.7 million guests cruised in 2019. Then coming to 2020, there were 5.8 million guests who travelled post assumption in July 2020, this is still a good number. The real resumption, however, took place in 2021, where the cruise industry really bounced back with 46 per cent of the people who travelled in 2019, this accounts for nearly 14 million guests.

“From July 2020 to July 2022, ships have been put back into service gradually, in a very phased manner, to ensure safety for the crew as well as the guests travelling. By now we already have 75 per cent of the capacity back up and running and expect it to be close to 100 per cent by July 2022.

“Meanwhile, all the cruise lines were continuing to build their new ships. Over the two years period, there have been more than 30 new ships have been built across all the cruise lines. In 2021 alone, there some 20 new ships that were delivered and in 2022, we are looking forward to another 16 new ships to be delivered,” says Lakshmi.

She refers to a recently conducted survey that shows a very positive comeback for cruises. According to the results, 82 per cent of cruisers said that they are ready to go back to cruising again and 62 per cent of non-cruisers said that they say they were interested in cruising.

“So, the demand is there, a strong pent-up demand, in fact and some very interesting itineraries. There are a lot of new ports, which have not been tested before, many cruise lines have their world cruises.

“This is the right time to focus on cruising,” she tells the audience.

It would not have been possible to resume cruising in such a successful way without first putting a strong focus on health and hygiene safety security measures.

Michael English tells us, “I like to refer to is sort of the three C's. The first thing is the communication. The cruise lines have put an incredible amount of additional safety protocols in place. The majority of cruise lines are saying everybody who's coming on board that ship has to be vaccinated. That's one of the things which have been driven by the CDC, which is the Centre of Disease Control in the US. Also all of our crew have to be vaccinated and boosted as well. In many of the ports of call, we are testing guests before they arrive. Should anybody prior to embarking and cruise test positive, they're refunds. There’s this confidence that as an industry, we're doing everything we can.

“The pent-up demand is incredible,” says English. “I encourage every one of you to pick up the phone to two or three of your customers and ask them if they’ve ever considered a cruise and they’ll most likely say yes.”

Spain, home to the cruise port of Barcelona, has about 5000 kilometres of coastline, including one of the longest Mediterranean coastlines and 60 islands. “In 2019, Spain got 10.6 million cruise visitors, which contributes to nearly 1 per cent of the country’s GDP. We support the cruise industry as much as we can. It provides nearly 50,000 jobs in Spain.

“When someone decides to go on a cruise, of course they consider the cruise line, the facilities but they also consider the port and destinations are also important during the decisionmaking process. We try to make our destination as attractive as we can. Also when the destinations are open and safe, it's easy to go to there. In 2021, we started seeing some recovery: 1.3 million cruise passengers and we were open only half of the year.”

Anyone from the UAE, KSA and Qatar, can go to Spain without a PCR or vaccination, just you have to fill in a form, assures Rosado.

Speaking of ease of travel, Dubai and the UAE have to be mentioned. Radhakrishnan shares some numbers from the region. “This season there are around 126 cruise calls and over half a million cruise tourists are expected. And this reflects in the UAE’s rising importance as cruise destinations not just in the region but globally. Many of the cruise liners have added the UAE and this region into their itineraries.

The UAE has five cruise terminals with a variety of facilities, including a dedicated Emirates counter to ease check in. “We had MSC’s naming ceremony in the UAE last year and are deploying one of our latest fleet and the largest fleet for 2022 to 23 season here. To increase the capacity, we'll also have a second ship deployed in UAE.” For the locals and residents, just drive your car, park it – parking is free – get into the ship, enjoy a seven-nights cruise – it’s as easy as ABC, he says.

Asif Husain explains that booking a cruise is quite simple. “There are a few things that one needs to do before for it to become easy for you to book. Most cruise lines modules that you could go through to learn – the idea is to recognise the niche between each one of us and to sell accordingly. The issue with this market, which has been the traditional issue that we always suffer from, is last minute bookings. Getting people to book early always pays rich dividends. If you push the booking window a little earlier, it will really help you. You won't be stressed, the client won't be stressed, the client will get better value for their money and the exact cabin they want.”

Mohamed Saeed adds, “I'm sure everyone has mastered their product knowledge when it comes to land vacations. You know which product or service will match with which customer. Similarly, every product in the cruising world also has its niche, the right customer and the wrong customer. Identifying your customers, understanding the brands and then figuring out who fits where across the brands, whether it’s a family vacation cruise, or honeymooners, or VIPs and ultraluxury, is key. This is endgame for all of us - to see pioneers in the industry and our travel partners, recognising and differentiating product offerings from different cruise lines.”