Dubai Harbour mixes up residential, retail and entertainment options at one of Dubai's most coveted locations. And then there is the cruise terminal... Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Weeks into the start of Dubai’s cruise season, it all seems like the smoothest of sailing all round. The first of the big vessels have anchored at Dubai’s cruise terminals, brimming with passengers wanting to catch the fine winter, engage in some heavy shopping and recreation onshore, and then move back onto the waters for the rest of the cruise.

At Dubai Harbour, all of this action means the city’s second cruise terminal point is clocking in some good progress in the second year of operations. And more than justify Dubai’s decision to have a second such terminal and anchor itself further as one of the prime spots for the global cruise industry.

Now, what comes across as real progress is that Dubai and the cruise industry have managed to rid themselves off all the pandemic-phase speed-breakers. And there were many during the whole of 2020 and well into last year as well. From the current vantage point, all that turmoil does seem like the distant past.

Abdulla Binhabtoor is Chief Portfolio Management Officer at Shamal Holdings, which is the owner and ‘curator’ of Dubai Harbour. In an interview, Binhabtoor gives his feel on what sort of sailing is up ahead for Dubai’s cruise sector.

When Dubai Harbour was created, it was felt that two terminals in the same city would represent over-capacity. What was the strategy?

Dubai Harbour has been designed to offer something for everyone and anyone who loves to be on, near, in or by the sea. It is an extraordinary seafront district, inspired by our connection to the sea, designed for a maritime lifestyle.

Beyond the range of living, retail and hospitality experiences, what is really new - and unique - about Dubai Harbour is our unique backdrop, iconic vista and accessible location. Positioned at the heart of Dubai’s most attractive city- and waterfront developments - the JBR, Palm Jumeirah and Bluewaters Island - Dubai Harbour combines extraordinary living and hospitality experiences with comprehensive berthing facilities. We believe Dubai can handle a second cruise port to meet the growing demand of tourism in its endeavours to become the world’s most visited city by 2025.

Dubai’s original cruise terminal at Mina Rashid - will it be equally active this cruise season?

Dubai’s popularity as a cruise destination has expanded significantly over the past decade, resulting in the world’s biggest cruise liners consistently including Dubai as a port-of-call. The 2022-23 season is scheduled to ramp up operations between Mina Rashid and Dubai Harbour.

We at Dubai Harbour remain committed to continuously enhancing our facilities, operational capacities, and capabilities to provide an extraordinary experience to our passengers.

Is it a different sort of vessel or routes that cruise liners calling at Dubai Harbour target?

So far, we have had the opportunity to host a wide range, since our first cruise season last year. We have two innovative ships home-porting with us and expect 46 ship calls and more than 300,000 visitors. We kickstarted this season on November 17 with the arrival of ‘AIDAcosma’, a sustainable and eco-friendly LNG-powered ship, and will be looking forward to ‘Costa Toscana' arriving as Dubai Harbour’s second home-porting vessel in a few weeks.

The ships deployed last season were of relatively smaller capacities from 2,500-4,000 passengers, due mainly to Covid restrictions. This season, we have newer ships capable of hosting over 5,500 passengers. With a 40 per cent increase in ship calls at Dubai Harbour it is a good reflection of consistent momentum. We are very optimistic about the future growth potential for the cruise industry across the region.

Covid interfered with all aspects of the cruise industry. At this moment, how far has Dubai’s cruise operations returned to pre-Covid levels?

Dubai is on track to becoming one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world. The city’s ambitions of being the preferred destination to live, work and invest offers a unique opportunity for the cruise ship industry to become a key contributor to the overall tourism strategy.

This is a very exciting year for us and last year was already successful with over 70,000 passengers over six months. This year, we at Dubai Harbour are targeting four times that number with 300,000 passengers, with a longer cruising season running for over eight months from November and into June.

Over the past few years, there has been encouraging growth in Dubai’s cruising industry. In the 2019-20 season, more than 200 ship calls were expected and an expected one million visitors. Last year, the 2021-22 season recorded 500,000 cruise visitors and 126 ship calls.

For the 2022-23 season there are 166 ship calls scheduled between Mina Rashid and Dubai Harbour, bringing in an estimated 900,000 cruise passengers and crew. The recovery is clear, kickstarting a new era of maritime growth.

- Abdulla Binhabtoor of Shamal Holdings

For the 2022-23 season there are 166 ship calls scheduled between Mina Rashid and Dubai Harbour, bringing in an estimated 900,000 cruise passengers and crew. The recovery is clear, kickstarting a new era of maritime growth.

Are you serving predominantly European cruise trips this season? What about those from Asia?

According to Global Media Insight, almost 60 per cent of Dubai’s population is made up of people originating from across the Asian continent. We have seen a strong demand for shorter cruise itineraries from this audience segment, especially over the longer weekends.

We welcome all of Dubai’s residents and citizens to explore the wide range of customised experiences, products and itineraries on offer from our cruise operator partners.

As we get ready to welcome the ‘Costa Toscana’, our second major ship home-porting this season and arriving at Dubai Harbour on December 16, guests will be able to enjoy a new way of inter-emirate travel experience with shorter itineraries on offer for UAE tourists and residents.

Passengers will be able to take advantage of exclusive four nights packages starting from Dubai, visiting Muscat and ending in Abu Dhabi as well as enjoy three night packages calling at Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Heading into 2023, what will be the biggest challenge for the industry? Because new vessels are getting integrated and capacities increased…

We are seeing momentum and expect this to continue into 2023 and beyond. While we will always need to be mindful of the wider economic pressures on consumer spending, we are not seeing any tangible impact on enquiries from passengers or cruise operator plans.

In terms of wider trends, we expect to see continue to be of importance across the cruise sector, ‘green cruising’ is continuing to be an exciting development with new innovations coming to market rapidly.