With New Cruise Terminal Open, Abu Dhabi Targets Growth

Abu Dhabi's new cruise terminal opened last December. // Photo courtesy of Abu Dhabi Ports 

Abu Dhabi, a cruise port destination and the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is sometimes overshadowed by booming sister destination Dubai. But the reality is that more than 228,000 cruise passengers visited Abu Dhabi during the 2015-16 season. That's more than six times the number of passengers the port had just a decade ago. 

Abu Dhabi’s 2016-17 cruise season is expected to host 250,000 cruise passengers on 151 port calls. This year Abu Dhabi's Zayed Port is a home port for MSC Cruises and Celebrity Cruises. 

Raid Obeidi // Photo courtesy of Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi)  

For the upcoming winter cruise season 2016-2017, MSC has tapped the MSC Fantasia for home porting; it previously had home ported MSC Musica, MSC Orchestra and MSC Lirica. Celebrity Constellation will have six departures from the destination this coming winter season.  

Travel Agent recently spoke with Raid Obeidi, senior project manager, cruise sector, Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi), by telephone at his office in Abu Dhabi about the destination's growth potential.

Beyond those two home ported vessels, more than 60 ships will make port calls at the destination this year. Costa Cruises’ Costa Luminosa called at the port recently on its maiden tour of the region, and Royal Caribbean International's Brilliance of the Seas called during its maiden voyage this spring.

Abu Dhabi's goal is to have many more ships home ported in the destination by 2020. A major draw? Obeidi points to the destination's new permanent cruise terminal that opened in December: "It can [handle] three cruises at the same time and the capacity inside the terminal is about 5,000 passengers, or even a little bit more." 

“It took more than one year to develop the terminal," notes Obeidi. He says the cost was substantive, and "it's a piece of art" in its design.  

Cruisers head for check-in at Abu Dhabi's new cruise terminal. // Photo courtesy of Abu Dhabi Ports 

Terminal amenities include souvenir shops, ATM machines, currency exchange, small restaurants and coffee shops, myriad check-in counters and baggage facilities.

One perk passengers really appreciate? Obeidi cited a service that allows disembarking guests to check in their bags for same-day airline flights at counters within the cruise terminal.

So guests don't have to drag along their bags to the airport. That's also helpful for cruisers who hope to do a bit of city sightseeing prior to their airline departure.   

Disembarking guests heading for the airport can check in bags for their flight at the cruise terminal. // Photo by Abu Dhabi Ports.

In addition, the facility has an Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority interactive visitor information center, staffed by trained visitor service representatives.

The center also operates The Heritage Village just 10 minutes away. “It’s one of the best attractions, and visitors can go and spend two or three hours there," he said, citing Henna activities, falconry, traditional handicraft displays and cultural demonstrations.

This attraction also has a dedicated exhibition on the future of Abu Dhabi — which visually maps out the emirate's key development projects.

That includes Sir Bani Yas Island, now being developed as a permanent private island beach experience by MSC Cruises in partnership with Abu Dhabi Ports Authority. Located off the southwestern coast of Abu Dhabi, "it's the first beach stopover in the region and can cater to 3,500 passengers on the beach at one time," says Obeidi. 

He notes that this will allow Abu Dhabi to have "double calls" by an individual ship -- one at the Abu Dhabi Cruise Terminal and the other at the private beach experience island. Many ships are confirmed at the island during the coming winter season, including multiple calls by MSC Fantasia, starting with that ship's December 3 cruise.

The new destination is on a smaller island connected to the main island by a wooden boardwalk. Guests have beach access, and can enjoy the palm trees, shaded cabanas and sunbeds.

MSC Cruises reports the island will also have private MSC Yacht Club and MSC Aurea Spa areas, sports facilities, a Bedouin tent selling arts and craft, lounge space with a bar and live music, cooking stations, a beachside barbecue, and six beach bars. 

Sir Bani Yas Island, a private island beach experience that's a partnership of Abu Dhabi Ports and MSC Cruises, will open in December. // Photo provided by MSC Cruises 

"All the cruise lines are very interested about this," Obeidi says. "Our goal is to position Abu Dhabi as a valuable alternative to a traditional winter cruise destination in order to continue the sustainable growth of the tourism economy."  

To showcase the new beach destination and all the attributes of Abu Dhabi, the port destination is conducting a joint marketing campaign with MSC and Celebrity Cruises, and is also attending many industry shows to get out the message.

For example, the cruise development team from the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi) participated in Seatrade Cruise Global earlier this year under the banner of Cruise Arabia, an alliance among Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Oman.

Abu Dhabi is a mix of historic and modern. // Photo courtesy of Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority

Cruise Arabia's goal is to showcase the Arabian Gulf as an emerging destination with the potential to compete with the world’s primary cruise hot spots. Obeidi says there have also been meetings with travel industry and cruise leaders in London, Germany and elsewhere this year.

According to Obeidi, Abu Dhabi officials have met with such lines as TUI CruisesCarnival Cruise Line, Disney Cruise Line and others to tell them about what his destination offers and the services available to cruise lines. "Now that we have the infrastructure, we are ready for it [expansion]," he says.

From December 12 to 15, Abu Dhabi will again host the annual Seatrade Middle East Cruise Forum at the Desert Island Conference Centre, adjacent to Desert Islands Resort & Spa by Anantara on Sir Bani Yas Island

Cruisers who sail from Abu Dhabi or visit are heavily from Europe, such as Germany, Italy, France and the United Kingdom. Some also hail from the U.S. and Canada“It’s not a big number as yet," he says but indicates the destination plans to do a lot of road shows to promote the destination in the U.S. to increase these numbers. I'm very sure there is potential to grow these numbers."

Interior of the new Abu Dhabi Cruise Terminal // Photo courtesy of Abu Dhabi Ports

Abu Dhabi's cruise development team is also doing road shows to help attract more travelers in India and ChinaThis year, Abu Dhabi has posted 173,649 overnight stays from India, a 22 percent growth rate over the same period last year. It also sees potential in South Africa and Australia.  

What’s the draw for cruisers should more ships home port in Abu Dhabi? Obeidi says Abu Dhabi can deliver a luxury experience with a strong cultural and artistic draw. Emirates Palace, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and local oases are among sites cruisers head out to visit.

In addition, Saadiyat Cultural District is set to become a global cultural hub with three major new museums - Louvre Abu Dhabi, Zayed National Museum and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi - all designed by Pritzker prize winners. “You can see the Louvre from the port,” Obeidi emphasizes. The cultural district also will include a maritime museum and a performing arts center. 

Warner Brothers World Abu Dhabi is a major new attraction opening in 2018 at Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. // Photo courtesy of Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority

Opening in 2018 is the new $1 billion Warner Brothers World Abu Dhabi. Located on Yas Island (home to hotels, resorts and other tourism draws), it will consist of a theme park with 19 rides, a branded Warner Bros-themed hotel and multiplex cinemas. For more information, visit https://wbworld.ae/.

A 90-minute drive from Abu Dhabi is Al Ainone of the world's oldest permanently inhabited settlements and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It offers multiple forts and several museums for cruisers to explore. The Al Ain Oasis has date palms, shady walkways, a 3,000 year-old falaj irrigation system and a camel market. 

Obeidi also points to the tourism appeal of Abu Dhabi's major events. One highlight is the 2016 Formula 1 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix set for November 25-27. Plus, year-round the destination has everything from golf and tennis championships to an international book fair.  

Certainly, a prime draw, though, is that Abu Dhabi delivers a mix of “traditional culture and heritage plus the modern life,” believes Oeidi. For more information on Abu Dhabi Ports, visit www.adports.ae/en. For Abu Dhabi tourism information, visit http://visitabudhabi.ae/en/default.aspx

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