Nakheel’s marina in Palm Jumeirah Image Credit: Supplied

When the tide comes in at the Dubai International Boat Show, starting today, it will introduce a clutch of high-speed sea toys including flying yachts, underwater scooters and personal submarines, alongside some of the world’s most glamourous floating homes and working fishing vessels.

With a wider variety of marine craft on display than ever before, Show Director Riju George says the event seeks to incorporate every aspect of ocean living so as to offer something for hobbyists of all recreational sea activities.

“The last decade has seen huge changes in recreational boating,” George tells GN Focus. “Both yacht buying and chartering is easier than ever, with such range and variety in small to midsized boats meaning there is such a wide scope, whatever the budget.”

So quickly is the industry changing that by 2025, the number of boat owners in the country is projected to double to around 20,000, says Ali Saeed Bin Thalith, Director, Nakheel Marine Group. “The UAE’s leisure boating sector has expanded significantly over the last 10 years, with the industry now worth around $1.5 billion (Dh5.5 billion) — and growing,” he says, citing Frost & Sullivan data for 2018.

The consultant estimates the global recreational boat market will grow to between $28 and $30 billion in 2022, up from $23 billion last year.

Infrastructure upgrades

Several new marina development and expansion projects are underway across the UAE as the country seeks to moor itself firmly to the centre of this industry, with Dubai seeking to position itself as the region’s maritime leisure capital.

Nakheel, for example, is expanding berth capacity at various locations in the emirate. “We are expanding our existing marina offering on Palm Jumeirah — which is currently at full capacity with 556 moorings — by adding more facilities to bring the total number of berths on the island to 600,” Bin Thalith says. “In addition, we are investing Dh165 million in six new marinas at the other end of Dubai at Deira Islands. These will accommodate a further 614 boats and yachts up to 60 metres long. We also continue to explore other locations for more marinas.”

Nakheel is expanding its existing marina offering on Palm Jumeirah — which is currently at full capacity with 556 moorings — by adding more facilities to bring the total number of berths on the island to 600.

- Ali Saeed Bin Thalith, Director, Nakheel Marine Group

One development to watch is Dubai Harbour, being constructed between the Palm Jumeirah and Jumeirah Beach Residences. Developer Meraas says the new neighbourhood — billed the biggest marina in the Middle East at 20 million sq ft — will anchor the largest yachting community in the Middle East and double the number of berths in the UAE. A total of 1,100 berths up to 160 metres in length are being delivered in two phases, a spokesperson tells GN Focus.

Last year, Meraas announced a joint venture agreement with Mediterranean marina operator D-Marin, in partnership with Dubai Holding for Dubai Harbour. As part of this partnership, D-Marin’s role will be to advise on the technical, design and service aspects of the new marinas and provide advertising and marketing support, while ensuring Dubai’s integration into a network of yachting centres in South East Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Dubai Maritime City Authority (DMCA) has been consistently working to develop a modern and supportive infrastructure for the yacht sector in Dubai. The Authority specially created the Sea Dubai initiative to promote Dubai’s luxury yacht sector and attract a wide array of private companies providing products and services in the industry.

In Abu Dhabi meanwhile, Yas Marina is also expanding its facilities, says General Manager Billy Cañellas Vears. A new addition to the venue is a dry stack for boats of between 7m to 12m, featuring an onsite petrol station with a 60m dock, double slipway, and maintenance yard.

The UAE’s strategic geolocation places it in close proximity to some of the world’s fastest growing superyacht destinations such as the Maldives, Seychelles and South East Asia.

- Billy Cañellas Vears, General Manager, Yas Marina

“The UAE’s strategic geolocation places it in close proximity to some of the world’s fastest growing superyacht destinations such as the Maldives, Seychelles and South East Asia,” he says. “This allows UAE to position itself as a leading home-port and superyacht hub for the Middle Eastern region,” he says.

Growth challenges

Cañellas Vears does however, point to some challenges ahead of the sector. Specifically, he says, yachting legislation needs to be improved and the country’s yachting and superyacht charter businesses need to be brought in line with international standards, while the nation is promoted as a superyacht destination. Demographic challenges in other sectors are also visible in the UAE, says Toby Haws, Head of Marinas for ART Marine, the Dubai-based 360-degree lifestyle yacht sales and service company, and the largest marina operator in the Mena region.

“Yachting as a premium leisure industry is reflective of the socio-economic environment, similar to that of food and beverage and automobiles. The slump at the top end of those sectors has been reported, so it makes sense it would also be the same for yachting,” he says.

Yachting as a premium leisure industry is reflective of the socio-economic environment, similar to that of food and beverage and automobiles.

- Toby Haws, Head of Marinas for ART Marine

Yet, the pre-owned market remains buoyant, and Haws sees more GCC nationals purchasing boats while expat ownership declines. However, he sounded a note of caution overall about the market’s ability to fill the new berths. “The net growth of vessels in the region does not balance current stick of berths, let alone future berth delivery,” Haws says.

Nevertheless, heightened interest in coastal rejuvenation are creating new waterfront destinations. Development of new resort destinations such as Blue Waters and Al Seef could help grow demand, he adds.

“But more destinations are needed, as are more places where commercial craft — such as water taxis, boat trips, rentals, etc — can have public access to encourage people to use the waterway developments.”

In other words, while there’s a possibility of choppy waters head, the overall outlook remains clear.