Miami of the Middle East? Dubai's pitch to winter cruisers

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(CNN) — In the depths of midwinter in the northern hemisphere, minds can drift to sunlit beaches in faraway lands.

For connoisseurs of cruise ships, the obvious choices are the palm-lined shores of Florida and the Caribbean, which account for the most popular cruise ports in the world.

But more than 7,000 miles east of Miami, Dubai is staking its own claim as a capital of cruising.
The Emirate’s Mina Rashid Cruise Terminal is already the most popular in the Middle East, attracting around 850,000 visitors in the 2018/19 season, according to official statistics.

The target for this winter — stretching from October to March/April — is to break one million visitors for the first time.

With reliable winter sunshine and easy access from European airports, Dubai is becoming a popular travel retreat for cruisers seeking to escape the cold.
The MSC Bellissima cruise ship, which arrives in Dubai for the first time this winter.

The MSC Bellissima cruise ship, which arrives in Dubai for the first time this winter.

MSC Cruises

If you build it…

Costa Cruises — a leading Italian operator — dispatched its flagship cruise liner the “Costa Diadema” to Dubai for the first time this winter.

The 300-meter ship, featuring a mall, casino, spa, and 4D cinema, will homeport at Mina Rashid between excursions to coastal cities in the region such as Doha, Qatar and Muscat, Oman.

The “Diadema” is just one of several luxury liners making a maiden voyage to Dubai this winter. Royal Caribbean’s “Jewel of the Seas” and MSC Cruises’ “MSC Bellissima” will also make debuts.

Dubai has taken ambitious steps to upgrade cruise infrastructure to attract big name operators.

Mina Rashid received a third terminal in 2014, and a 25 billion dirham ($6.8bn) expansion project will see a new marina installed along with new shipping berths and luxury leisure attractions including a “Venetian piazza.”
The 186-hectare Dubai Harbour project, due to open next year coinciding with Expo 2020, will feature two of the most advanced cruise terminals in the region, according to developer Meraas.

The two-story terminals are equipped to handle “complete passenger turnaround of two mega-size cruise ships simultaneously,” a Meraas spokesman said, and will feature “the most technologically-advanced, streamlined immigration and customs screening processes.”

Around 250,000 passengers are expected to pass through the site in its opening 2020/21 season.

Each year the yacht industry gathers at the Dubai International Boat Show, the biggest event of its kind in the Gulf.

A cheaper way to see Dubai

Beyond infrastructure development, the government has also moved to offer incentives to visitors.

In May, it introduced the Dubai Stopover Pass with special rates on popular attractions for short-stay visitors such as cruise ship passengers. The pass offers package discounts for tourists visiting multiple attractions including the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Aquarium.
Cruise tourism could appeal to visitors who might otherwise be deterred by the high costs of Dubai, according to industry analyst Shaun Ebelthite, who runs the “Cruise Arabia” news site.

“Dubai has been marketed as a luxury playground with the largest malls, the best beach resorts, and the most luxurious hotels,” says Elbethite. “But tourists who want to come and see the major attractions like Burj Khalifa…might not necessarily be able to afford a week in a hotel in the city and all the extra costs.”

“But if they can spend less to see more cities and have more experiences in the region aboard a cruise ship, it becomes a more enticing proposition.”

The analyst adds that Dubai is well-placed to attract winter visitors from Europe as the city boasts “one of the best winter climates in the world with warm, sunny days and cool nights that make for perfect cruising weather.”

Lakeside view of Burj Khalifa Dubai

The new Dubai Stopover Pass could enable short-stay visitors to see attractions such as the Burj Khalifa.

Tom Dulat/Getty Images

Regional factors

Dubai’s attraction to visitors is partly contingent on other cities in the region that also feature on cruise itineraries, says Ebelthite.

“Many passengers complain that Abu Dhabi, Doha, Bahrain, and Muscat are all very similar, with the same kinds of shore excursions offered,” he says.

Other destinations have sought to cultivate attractions in recent years. Muscat has developed desert safaris where guests explore the dunes in four-wheel-drives or on the backs of camels. Abu Dhabi has introduced one of the world’s most prestigious cultural institutions with the inauguration of a Louvre museum.

New destinations are being added such as Sir Bani Yas Island off the coast of Abu Dhabi, home to the Arabian Wildlife Park that accommodates dozens of exotic species.

The Emirate’s cruise industry took a hit earlier this year when operator P&O canceled its winter routes from Dubai citing “increased tension in the region” following the detention of a British-flagged tanker by the Iranian navy.

But that scare appears to have abated as no other operator followed suit. Costa Cruises’ spokesman says the company is “monitoring” the security situation but has made no changes to its scheduled services.

Costa will actually be adding new Dubai trips from next year, the spokesman said. P&O has also confirmed it will return to Dubai for the 2020/21 winter season.