Cruise Liner 1
Come late October, cruise lines will be calling on Dubai's Mina Rashid Terminal. Their return will be crucial, given that Dubai used to welcome up to 500,000 visitors on such ships each year before the pandemic struck. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Dubai: The first cruise ships after the COVID-19 crisis will dock at Dubai’s Mina Rashid Terminal late October, according to a top official at the port operator. And all precautions are being taken to ensure the health and safety of those on board as well as those whom they come in contact with.

“We have been monitoring the situation closely and feel confident we can assure customer safety,” said Mohammed Al Mannaei, CEO of P&O Marinas, the DP World subsidiary handling the cruise-focussed business. “Our long-standing relationship with cruise lines and our mutually beneficial relationship with stakeholders around the world have held us in good stead as we identify appropriate solutions to ensure tourism flows and business continuity in Dubai.”

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Quite substantial

Dubai’s travel and tourism prospects are dominated by its airlines, hotels and leisure destinations – but in that space, the cruise industry too has a significant role. In recent years, half a million tourists have disembarked from some of the world’s most luxurious cruise liners at the Port Rashid Terminal. On each visit, hundreds, even thousands, of passengers would step onto Dubai’s shores and end up being heavy spenders at its malls and other business establishments.

But the pandemic struck a body blow to the cruise industry, and as with airlines and hotel sectors, it will take time for a return to normalcy. Or whatever will pass for as normal in the changed global circumstances.

After the cruise business came to a halt, the Port Rashid Terminal had a deserted look – but that’s not for long. DP world, the company that runs the emirate’s ports, will once again let cruise ships operate in UAE by the end of October.

This may lead to a slightly different cruising experience than our guests are used to - but their health and well-being remain our top priority

- Mohammed Al Mannaei, CEO of P&O Marinas

Safe cruising

P&O Marinas will introduce a new safety protocol to win travellers’ confidence back. At the beginning of the outbreak, cruise lines in Japan, Australia and California hit the headlines because of the sudden and sharp outbreak of infections onboard.

“Seeing passengers stranded on dozens of cruise ships in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with some falling sick, naturally made people question safety on board such ships,” said Al Mannaei.

The rules include screening of passengers, reduced capacity on-board, washing and disinfecting linens at high temperatures, the wearing of masks in public areas, stopping buffet dinners, denying boarding to those aged 70 and older as well as social distancing while on guided tours.

“Of course, this may lead to a slightly different cruising experience than our guests are used to - but their health and well-being remain our top priority,” the CEO added.

Chart a slow recovery

The cruise industry is stirring itself back into activity, hoping the recovery paths will run smoothly. Carnival Corp’s Italian venture Costa Cruises has resumed sailing, with one-week itineraries and calling at ports within Italy only.

While Gulf News could not immediately determine if Carnival had plans of resuming operations to the Arabian Gulf, Geneva-based MSC Cruises said it would deploy a ship in the region from December 5 to April 3, 2021 - but down from the two ships it had operating last year. MSC will be joined by German cruise line AIDA, which will also operate one vessel in the region in the coming months.

Cruise Liner 2
Life's a breeze on a liner... But future cruising will involve a lot of health and safety precautions. And no more of buffets, either. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

As for Royal Caribbean Middle East, it has decided not to sail to the region this winter.

“It's difficult to have any certainty around the timing or shape of our recovery - but we do intend to make sure that we are prepared for it and for the changes it will entail,” said Mohamed Saeed, Managing Director of Royal Caribbean Middle East. “We are focused on all aspects of our safe return to service strategy with special emphasis on safety, security and health

The cruise operator has extended the suspension of sailings to include those departing on or before October 31, 2020, but excluding those from China.

“Most of the cruise lines are on pause and very few are beginning to test waters -- a lot still depends on air capacity to cruise destinations, countries opening up for tourism, issuance of visas which is in addition to CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) approvals for resuming operations,” said Ashok Kumar, Managing Director of Cruise Master, a booking agency.

What will it cost?
Cruise prices, much like airline tickets, can swing wildly depending on availability and season.
The lowest-cost cabin on MSC’s Fantasia, which departs from Dubai and makes stops at Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and Qatar, can be booked for about Dh3,500 ($960) in early December. The fare rises to about Dh6,350 ($1,730) in the week before Christmas and then hits Dh8,200 ($2,250) before New Year.

AIDA’s cruise rates follow a similar pattern – starting from Dh3,680 (845 euros) and Dh5,770 (1,325 euros) for peak-season trips.

Bookings are open

While the rest of this year will be dominated by domestic tourism, there are signs that UAE and Gulf residents are beginning to think about taking a holiday break outside… next year.

“There is a healthy interest for the 2021 summer … bookings are already trickling in, but the wave begins only after New Year's,” said Kumar. “Considering the impact of pandemic, people are [still] keen to get out - as is evident from the increase in the number of staycation breaks.”

The CEO of CruiseXplore, another Dubai-based booking agency, said the rising interest was due to companies offering attractive packages. For instance, MSC is offering healthcare workers up to 50 per cent off their cruise, which is valid until the end of 2021.

“We have some of our guests calling and asking when the cruises will start … which is positive,” said Lakshmi Durai of CruiseXplore.

It’s all about experience

Royal Caribbean’s Saeed believes that loyal guests and more experienced travellers will have a better understanding of the cruise line’s COVID policy. “The less they know about cruising, the more likely they are to be suspicious or cynical,” he said. “So for us, transparency with our loyal guests is key.

“It’s likely that the cruise experience could never return to pre-COVID-19 days with new protocols and measures in place that we learn to adopt going forwards.”

Late October will provide Dubai’ cruise industry a feel of what is to come.