Dubai cruise terminal is a favoured anchoring spot for mega ships and their passengers. File picture from a 2019 visit. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Dubai: There will be no easy return to form for one pillar of Dubai’s travel and tourism industry – cruises – as a new wave of lockdowns and travel restrictions in Europe, which is the biggest source for passengers, take hold. This could push back recovery until later this year, industry sources say.

The delay has been mostly because feeder markets in Europe are still “reeling under the impact of COVID-19,” said Ashok Kumar, Managing Director of Cruise Master, a booking agency. “The new COVID strain is not helping either.”

Geneva-based MSC Cruises, which was planning to deploy a ship in the Middle East from December 5 to April 3, 2021, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“The Gulf region will host two MSC Cruises ships for the winter season and guests will be able to attend the postponed Expo 2020 Dubai, which will now commence in October,” MSC said in a statement.

Route schedules

The ‘MSC Virtuosa’, one of the company’s newest ships with a launch date in April, will spend its first winter season in the region, homeporting in Dubai. From there, it will sail to Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, and Doha.

Another vessel – ‘MSC Opera’ - will offer a seven-night itinerary that includes two overnights in Dubai as well as stops in Abu Dhabi and Muscat.

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Change of plans

While Dubai’s travel and tourism is dominated by its airlines, hotels and leisure destinations, the cruise industry too has played a significant role.

Three months ago, the local cruise industry was getting ready to welcome the first ships from Europe to drop anchor after the devastating pandemic. But all those well laid out plans had to be thrown overboard after the UK reported the new strain and daily infection rates elsewhere in Europe forced the cruise industry to change more than their itineraries,

In November, Carnival Corporation’s AIDA Cruises cancelled all departures from Dubai. Its ship was initially expected to set sail for the 2020 Arabian Gulf cruise season on December 11.

Mini runs

Despite the drastically curtailed 2020 winter run,, travel websites are already showing booking options for 2021. One of AIDA’s cruise ships is marked to depart from Dubai and sail around UAE and Oman for seven days starting January 29. The cheapest option on the vessel is 549 euros (about Dh2,500).

MSC Fantasia will depart from Dubai on January 23 and will sail to Bahrain and Qatar. Prices for this seven-day trip are from 379 euros (Dh1,700).

Time to mend

“Many countries are still closing their borders - even those that tried to start (cruise ships) to create confidence had to stop because there’s a surge again,” said Ashley Noronha, Managing Director, Best Orbit Travel.

“We need time until August or September to see proper commencement of operations. You need time for the vaccines to be distributed and once the majority have it, you'll see a larger confidence in the market.”

Dire straits

Since the onset of the pandemic, two of the largest cruise operators – Carnival and Royal Caribbean – have seen their market values wiped off by nearly half.

Jalesh Cruises India became the sixth cruise company that went bankrupt due to the impact of COVID-19. The company suspended operations due to rising debts and a delay in the reopening of cruise ports in its home country.

Jalesh’s ‘Karnika’, the first Indian cruise ship to make a stop in the Gulf region, was reportedly sold for scrapping in November.

Awaiting the return

Cruise industry sources informed Gulf News that people were booking for 2021 cruises in large numbers from UAE and the Middle East. “A good percentage of people want to go on vacation again… (they) want something different,” said Noronha.