The booming cruise industry in Middle East
Just last month, off the coast of Somalia - where pirates occasionally hijack cargo ships - passengers on the fancy, all-inclusive Seabourn Encore were enjoying martinis and opera around the pool when out of the darkness arrived a small motorboat. The crowd rushed to the side rail for a view.
Onto the cruise ship climbed several burly security guards with cases of ‘conventional weapons’, which would provide, as the captain explained, an added layer of protection for a potentially tricky passage.
“This is just like a James Bond movie,” said Dr Jack King, an orthodontist from Dayton, Ohio - and one of 548 passengers sailing on a three-week voyage from Rome to Dubai.
A week later, near Abu Dhabi, an alarm sounded, signalling the arrival of another boat. This time, it was stocked with 500g tins of Sterling Caviar for encore guests to enjoy in the warm surf of a private beach.
Cruising from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf brings a sense of intrigue - and often, a fair share of fivestar accoutrements. And more and more travellers are catching on.
A total of 87 cruise ships docked in Dubai in 2009, a number that nearly doubled to 157 during the 2016-2017 winter season. At last count, 18 companies were docking in the Middle East this winter, with five cruise lines doing a full season there; additional companies, including Carnival Corp’s P&O Cruises, are planning new itineraries to come online in 2019.
Here’s why: With Middle Eastern countries investing heavily in infrastructure, cruise lines now see the region as an attractive place to move their Europe fleets in the winter season, while travellers see the itineraries as an easy way to check off several bucket list attractions they may not previously have visited.
No worries needed
The Egyptian pyramids, the rose-hued ancient city of Petra in Jordan, the Middle East has many tourism calling cards, and cruising is an easy way to see several of them in one fell swoop. Longer voyages such as the Seabourn Encore’s include visits to the latter two, plus sailings through the Suez Canal and camel rides in Wadi Rum, the red desert in Jordan made famous by Lawrence of Arabia. Even on itineraries as short as a week, cruisers can catch a whiff of Old Arabia in Oman, where souq merchants peddle frankincense incense and perfume, and then experience the modern delights of Abu Dhabi and Dubai - including the gleaming new Louvre Abu Dhabi. The ancient fort in the sleek city of Bahrain and the millennia-old artifacts in the I M Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art, in Doha, are excellent examples of how these itiner- aries provide compelling bridges between old and new. Combining these places on a land trip requires expert-level planning.
Dicey relationships between neighbouring governments mean you may get turned away from a border for having old stamps from a rival country in your passport; many prime attractions require the assistance of a guide and driver.
By ship, it’s foolproof. Visas are arranged by the cruise line and issued as you pull into port. And travellers worried about security will feel comforted by the constant presence of armed guards, both on and off shore, though you may not see them.
Better by sea
There are other benefits to luxury cruising in the Middle East. Open bars are easier to find on ships than on dry land. On the Encore, luxury shopping literally sails with you: If you didn't find what you wanted at the gold souq in Dubai, you could spring for a US$41,000 Brilliant Stars diamond-and-yellowsapphire necklace available on the ship.
Perhaps most important, shore excursions always come with local guides who can help break cultural barriers, whether you’re touring opulent mosques, exploring labyrinthine souks, or riding the world’s fastest roller coaster at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi.
They also help cruisers navigate language barriers and local dress codes. (Generally, tourists are advised just to dress modestly.)
“Absolutely I had some trepidation, and also a bit of an obsession of what we were supposed to wear,” said Vanessa Bechtel (38) who heads the Ventura County Community Foundation in Santa Barbara, California, and was travelling with her husband, Jim. “Maybe the biggest factor for me was would I dislike the culture, was I going to be in an area of the world where I would not feel comfortable.”
Vanessa said, “I think about all the things I was worried about! I read somewhere that women shouldn’t shake hands. I shook hands with so many people.”
The Seabourn Encore, one of several luxury ships spending time in the Middle East
Muscat is a popular stop on many Middle Eastern cruises
Setting the stage for a camel-riding excursion in Wadi Rum, Jordan
Dates bought at a local market