World’s biggest ship woos Gulf

From L-R: Captain Teo Strazicic, Elizabeth Hill and Sir Steve Redgrave.

THE Middle East could be a lucrative market for the biggest cruise ship the world has ever seen.

Longer than three-and-a-half football pitches, The Independence of the Seas, which is owned by  Royal Caribbean International, set sail on its inaugural voyage from Southampton at the end of April.
Middle East passengers are among those being targeted for a series of cruises the ship is doing out of the UK port this year.
Richard D Fain, chairman and chief executive officer of Royal Caribbean Cruises, told TTN, that the drama of such a huge ship should appeal to the Gulf market.
“I think the biggest and the best appeals to people regardless of where they are from and what this ship offers is more choice and more amenities than anything else afloat. I feel comfortably anybody who comes on board can’t help but say Wow!”
“The Middle East has been a small market but it is beginning to realise what cruising is and I think it will become a much more significant market for us,” he said.
The Independence of the Seas, which is a staggering 340 metres long and weighs 160,000 tonnes, has a guest capacity of 4,375.
It has 15 passenger decks, a 1,320 seat capacity theatre as well as its own ice rink and a FlowRider where passengers can actually surf artificial waves.
Cruises start from around $700 for a four night round trip from Southampton to Cork in Ireland to 14 night Mediterranean cruises taking in Monte Carlo, Florence, Rome, Seville and Lisbon from $2,600 per person.
 But RCI believe its more luxurious state rooms such as the Royal suite will appeal to Middle East clientele. 
Helen Beck, regional sales director, international representatives, Europe, Middle East and Africa, says Middle East customers are often looking for extra service.
“Our Middle East guests are often looking for a high standard and I think suites such as the Royal will be very attractive to them,” she said.
Sheikh Bader Bin Sulman Al Khalifa, managing director of Alkaatib Travel Agency in Bahrain, who was on the inaugural voyage from Southampton, said he believed the ship would be a hit with clients.
“It will go down well because it is a novelty. There is no question about it. When people come here and see it they are just taken by the wow factor and the grandeur of it all,” he says.
“I am sure passengers will travel to Southampton to set sail. Europe is becoming an increasingly popular cruising market for Middle East customers.”
The Independence of the Seas, which, if it stood on one end  would be taller than the Chrysler building in New York, took two years to build at a costs of $800 million.
Fain said he was not fazed by the prospect of an economic downturn, which he said was already a reality in the United States.
He added that bigger ships make more cost effective use of fuel, the rising cost of which is likely to hit the company’s margins.
“When you make an investment like this you are not looking at the next 2 to 3 years but the next 10, 20 and 30 years over which period of time the economy will at least have one more cycle to go through,” he said.
He added that the cruise industry tended to fare relatively well in recessions since it was inexpensive compared to other forms of holiday, particularly since much of what is on board is included in the headline price.
“One of the things that cruising has proved is that it is relatively recession resistant because people get a good deal on cruising,” he added.
RCI, which is the cruise market leader in the Middle East, has an international representative based in Dubai and an extensive network of agencies and travel companies. It also has an existing programme of training travel partners.
Beck believes Independence of the Seas could be a major driver for the Middle East market.
“I think this proposition goes down well with our Middle East clients. We get predominately family groups from the region and they find the variety of choice we have on board caters for the multi-generational age group,” she said.
“Many of our Middle East guests are often high ranking dignitaries, politicians and members of royal families and they like the sense of privacy that is available too.” 
by Andrew Moody