A regional cruise industry chief has urged the UAE to improve its port infrastructure and ease visa requirements to attract more operators to the country.
And the Emirates needs to start cooperating regionally, Helen Beck, the regional director at Royal Caribbean, told the World Ports and Trade Summit in Abu Dhabi yesterday. She said the industry carried 20 million passengers last year and had an economic impact of more than US$40 billion (Dh146.92bn).
"The opportunities are immense, because cruising is a global industry capable of bringing passengers to your shores, from parts of the world you never dreamed of," Ms Beck said.
"Given that you have city cultures that are vibrant and growing and that your airlines make you one of the most connected regions in the world, you have an opportunity to let our passengers taste you as a destination … and then come back."
Santiago Gárcia-Mila, the deputy general manager of the port of Barcelona, explained how his port transformed itself into the busiest cruise destination in the Mediterranean.
"Our first cruise liner terminal was a tent on the quay. Now we have seven purpose-built terminals, our port is an integrated part of the city and we cater for 2.5 million passengers a year," he said.
In the past few weeks, Royal Caribbean, which includes Celebrity Cruises, has had meetings with the Abu Dhabi Ports Company and the Abu Dhabi Authority for Tourism and Culture to discuss growing the industry in the region, said Ms Beck.
"What we said was, we have 22 ships in the fleet, and over 1,000 ports to choose from where to call. What we look for when deciding is: are there other exciting ports to visit nearby? That is why it is vital that your cruise industry strategy must be part not only of your own overall tourist strategy, but that of your neighbours, too.
"We also look for a cost-effective deal. There is often an assumption among new entries to the industry that ports can charge what they want. Wrong. We know of hundreds of ports who want your business.
"So rule one is, consult with us. Make no assumptions on what will work… We are not looking for multimillion dollar investments in terminals here… All we need is space. There are many purpose built cruise liner terminals across Asia, that have cost millions to build, and they don't work for us."
The industry's main problem in the Middle East, though, was visa arrangements. In the UAE, single-entry visas often meant passengers having to pay several times to land, if the cruise called at more than one UAE port.
"Your target markets should include countries like Russia, China and Brazil. These are affluent, growing markets, so why make it difficult for them to come here," added Ms Beck.
Significant investment will have to be made in areas around the ports, if the UAE wants to attract cruise liners, said Mr Gárcia-Mila.
"Before the 1992 Olympics we were a rundown port isolated from our city," he said.
"The Olympics meant we had to change fast. We opened our port up to the city. Before, it was surrounded by rundown, unsafe areas. We changed all that. Now the port is an attraction with cafes, restaurants, retail outlets. Putting in the right infrastructure is vital. Our port area now gets 16 million visitors a year."