The boom­ing cruise in­dus­try in Mid­dle East

Muscat Daily - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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