Cruise season comes calling

From MSC Virtuosa and Bellissima to AIDAbella and Costa Firenze, the Middle East has a growing portfolio of vessels and winter itineraries this year

Cruising in the region has made good progress when compared to the same period last year. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have both entered into separate partnerships with Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) to further their cause and make a name for themselves on the cruising map. Dubai Harbour Cruise Terminal, the first ever dedicated cruise port in the region, is now active with over 34 ship calls expected until April 2022.

Abdulla Binhabtoor, Chief Portfolio Management Officer, Shamal Holding, owning-company and curator of Dubai Harbour, tells TTN in an interview, “Dubai is the gateway to the region and is an ideal base for cruise holidaymakers seeking to explore the UAE and the wider region. We have always been working very closely with CLIA and are a member of the association. We are pleased to see the potential for more cruising destinations and ports in our region to expand the regions’ itineraries. This growth will result in further expansion of inbound cruising tourism.

“We in Dubai Harbour strongly believe in our growth trajectory and the potential of the region and look forward to seeing more ports opening for cruising in our region.”


“We have a long-standing strategic and business relationship with Carnival Corporation and seven of their cruise brands will be using the Dubai Harbour Cruise Terminal for their calls in Dubai”
– Abdulla Binhabtoor


Binhabtoor’s spirit of regional cooperation is mirrored across the borders by Fawaz Farooqui, interim CEO, Cruise Saudi. He tells us in an interview, “We complement our neighbours and are not in competition with them but we are different, we have our own unique selling points. We can create a strong product in partnership with our neighbours, each offering our own unique flavour. This will be a win-win for all – governments, cruise lines, travel agents and travellers, specially long-haul.”



The PIF-funded Cruise Saudi was born in late January 2021, making it one of the youngest cruise organisations in the world. The country doesn’t have a cruise visa yet – likely because the cruises are currently used mainly by the domestic market – but it’s in the works, Farooqui assures us. “We are working with the Saudi Ministry of Tourism for a comprehensive cruise tourism visa. At the moment, however, most nationalities can utilise the e-visa to come into the country. There are also 48-hour transit visas that may be used.” 

Tourism – and cruise tourism - are in the nascent stages in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but time moves at a much faster pace in the country, under the new government. Cruise Saudi aims to have 5 cruise ports operational by 2025, create 50,000 jobs in the cruise industry in Saudi Arabia by 2035, while welcoming one million cruise passengers by 2028. These are big numbers but Farooqui is confident in achieving them on the back of unwavering support from the government and ultimately, a strong tourism offering.

“We can create a strong product in partnership with our neighbours, each offering our own unique flavour. This will be a win-win for all – governments, cruise lines, travel agents and travellers, specially long-haul”
– Fawaz Farooqui


“In terms of cruising, our most important value proposition has to be our cultural heritage. We have thousands of years of history and it’s just not one civilization but many. Historically, we used to be on the trade route, which starts from the south starting from Yemen, all the way to the north. The best part is that the densest of these routes was parallel to the Red Sea. So, all of the civilization and its fascinating history will be accessible by sea.

“The second value proposition we offer is the local culture, the gastronomy. We have 13 different regions in Saudi Arabia and we have multiple distinct cultures. The culture of the south is very different from that of the north – so travellers will have a lot of variety to explore on shore excursions.

“Our third key offering is nature: we have pristine untouched beaches with the mountains in the South, and the dramatic mountains in the North, where sometimes it snows in the winter. We have multiple UNESCO world heritage sites that people and also many wadis, date farms, citrus farms, the list is endless.

“And last, but not the least, the hospitality of the Saudi people, which you have to come and experience.”



Binhabtoor of Shamal Holding tells us, “We are pleased to host one of the world’s most popular cruise liners such as the AIDAbella on its maiden call and the first cruise passengers on their arrival to the Dubai Harbour Cruise Terminal. Our world-class facility and infrastructure provide passengers and crew a safe, comfortable, and seamless experience. Designed to process over 3,250 passengers per hour, the highly efficient and modern terminals can accommodate a complete passenger turnaround of two mega cruise ships simultaneously. Approximately, 2,800 passengers and 3 ship calls have passed through Dubai Harbour since the start of the cruise season on November 25.

“More recently, we welcomed over 2,450 passengers and 1,900 crew members aboard two Carnival Corporation cruise ships on December 16 and 17 – the AIDAbella and Costa Firenze.

“We hold a long standing strategic and business relationship with Carnival Corporation, the world's largest cruise company, and seven of their cruise brands, that typically operate in the region, will be using the Dubai Harbour Cruise Terminal for their calls in Dubai. Two international cruise lines: Aida Cruises from Germany and Costa from Italy, are homeporting in Dubai for the upcoming winter cruise season.”

The two homeporting cruise lines AIDAbella and Costa Firenze will be operating weekly cruise itineraries within the Arabian Gulf region and are scheduled to call destinations such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sir Baniyas, Khorfakkan, Muscat, Qatar in different sequences and voyages.



DP World’s Mina Rashid won the award for the Middle East’s Leading Cruise Port for the 14th consecutive year at the World Travel Awards (WTA) 2021. The award has reaffirmed the port’s status as a leading destination, regionally and globally. Nominees for this significant accolade included other premier ports from the Middle East.

Currently, Mina Rashid can handle seven mega-cruise vessels or 25,000 passengers at once. The port’s Hamdan bin Mohammed Cruise Terminal is the world’s largest single, covered cruise terminal facility capable of handling 14,000 passengers a day. Mina Rashid is currently undergoing an expansion by building a world class recreational area. Dubai’s 2021-2022 season, which commenced in October, is expected to welcome 126 ship calls and over 500,000 cruise visitors.

Since its inauguration in 2014 until 2020, the terminal witnessed a growth of 55 per cent, receiving a high volume of cruise ships.

In November last year, it was home to the naming ceremony of MSC Virtuosa, reflecting the growing importance of the emirate as a must-visit destination for global cruise holidaymakers.


With so many international cruise lines homeporting in the region and including the region in their itineraries, there is immense growth in the cruise tourism sector for travel agents and tour operators.

Cruise Saudi’s Farooqui tells us, “I am pleasantly surprised by the enquiries coming in from ‘new’ markets such as Australia, Canada and South Africa. There is also this huge interest on complementing the cruise offering with a religious product, pre-, post- or during the cruise. There have also been requests for a halal cruise. We see a huge potential of growth in these areas.

“We are open to collaborate with travel agents as we have significant inventory to sell regionally in the Gulf.”