Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Fastest Growing Cruise Destination is . . . The Persian Gulf?

USA Today

It wasn't by accident that Costa Cruises chose Dubai in the Persian Gulf as the location for last week's naming of its newest ship, the Costa Deliziosa. The gleaming tourist and business hub is turning into a boom town of sorts for the cruise industry.

Costa CEO Pier Luigi Foschi noted at the event that the Carnival-owned line was moving 140,000 cruisers through the city this winter, a 40% increase from last year and more than three times the number of just three years ago.

"The business grew fast," says Foschi, ticking off details of the company's rapid, four-year expansion from one ship to three in the region.

Perpetually sunny and warm, the Persian Gulf is proving a popular winter getaway for cruise fans from Europe, in particular, as well as Middle Easterners and smaller numbers of Americans, despite its location near several troubled countries including Iraq and Yemen.

For a European cruiser, the Persian Gulf is closer than the Caribbean and offers an appealing mix of culture, history and modern conveniences, not to mention luxury (Dubai's sparkling new airport puts those in cruise hubs Miami and Fort Lauderdale to shame, and the beach-lined city boasts some of the world's most elaborate resorts).

Dubai's top tourism official, Hamad Bin Mejiren, told cruise writers in Dubai last week for the Costa event that the city expected to see 575,000 cruise passengers by 2015. That's more than double the 263,000 that arrived in 2009, he noted.

As recently as 2001, Dubai was getting just 7,000 cruise passengers a year.

The naming of the Costa Deliziosa last week was a first of its kind in an Arab city -- and, officials say, a harbinger of things to come.

Costa already is basing its two newest ships -- the Deliziosa and sister Luminosa -- in Dubai this winter (both vessels sailing seven-night Gulf voyages that include stops in ports such as Muscat, Oman). It also has been operating 18-night cruises between Dubai and Savona, Italy, on the Costa Europa, though the voyages came to an abrupt end last week after the ship was involved in an accident in Egypt.

The trend of cruises around the Middle East also got a big boost in January as industry giant Royal Caribbean began its first season of voyages in the region. Royal Caribbean's 2,112-passenger Brilliance of the Seas, now sailing weekly out of Dubai on seven-night trip to Oman, Bahrain and other parts of the United Arab Emirates, was docked next to the Costa Deliziosa during last week's ceremony.

How significant will cruising in the Persian Gulf become? Clearly, Dubai is betting big. The naming of the Costa Deliziosa last week coincided with the official unveiling of a new cruise terminal at Dubai's Port Rashid that can accommodate up to four cruise ships at a time.