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The luxury liner Queen Elizabeth is docked at Ocean Terminal in Hong Kong. The ship is scheduled to make a port call in Dubai on March 31.
The luxury liner Queen Elizabeth is docked at Ocean Terminal in Hong Kong. The ship is scheduled to make a port call in Dubai on March 31.

Dubai a willing host as Chinese go cruising

The emirate has seen a huge rise in cruise ship tourism and it has become much easier for Chinese travellers to visit. They are doing so in droves.

Dubai is established as a global tourist destination but its importance as a stopping-off point for cruise ships is relatively new.

In 2001, just 7,000 cruise ship passengers visited the city, a mere drop in the ocean compared with the 3.6 million tourists in total who arrived that year.

The emirate last year hosted 8.7 million hotel guests, well over double the figure of a decade ago. This increase, while impressive, is put into perspective by the 55-fold growth in cruise ship tourists over the same period, with 390,255 enjoying Dubai as a port of call last year.

The total number of passengers last year was nearly 50 per cent up on 2009's figure of 262,740, with the increase no doubt helped by the launch of Dubai's new cruise terminal.

In future, more of the hearty seafarers who stride happily along their ship's gangway to enjoy a few hours or days of desert safaris and shopping in Dubai are likely to come from China.

Some cruise lines are already offering 25-day no-expense-spared voyages that begin in China and end in Dubai

Other Chinese tourists are splashing out on fly-cruises that see them jet in to the Middle East and then go cruising for a few days - with Dubai often the place where the voyages start and end.

It has been much easier for Chinese travellers to visit the UAE after Beijing's decision in 2009 to give the Emirates "preferred destination status", meaning visa and other red-tape restrictions have been made less onerous.

"In the recent spring festival, we had several groups who travelled to Dubai to take a cruise to Oman or Qatar, then back to Dubai," says Eric Li, the manager of the Middle East and Africa section of Beijing Jin Jiang International Travel.

Increases in the number of cruise-ship visitors from China are part of a wider expansion in the popularity of cruises among residents of the Asia-Pacific in general. Growth is outstripping expectations.

In 2005, UK-based consultants predicted that 2 million people would be taking cruises annually in Asia by 2015.

Late last year, Soo Kok Leng, the chairman of the Singapore Cruise Centre, said these estimates had proved to be way out, forecasting instead the figure would be closer to 7 million.

Less than a year ago, several countries in the region, among them China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, formed the Asia Cruise Terminal Association to allow the region to pool expertise and improve standards.

It is no surprise that China's business capital, Shanghai, has seen dramatic increases in the number of cruise ship tourists sailing in.

The cruise operator Royal Caribbean said passenger volumes at Shanghai increased more than 250 per cent in 2009, and as with Dubai, increases have been encouraged by the opening of an international cruise terminal. The number of cruise passengers visiting Chinese sea ports is now running at about 600,000 a year.

Reports indicate China has encouraged growth by making it easier for Chinese ship operators to run cruises, by simplifying customs procedures and by easing the paperwork burden on foreign companies sailing into its ports.

Yet there remains vast scope for further expansion of the industry in Asia. Up until now, the numbers of people taking cruises around the continent has been modest compared with the global total.

The Cruise Lines International Association predicts 16 million people worldwide, three quarters of them from North America, will embark on cruises this year, up 6.6 per cent on last year.

That Chinese are more keen and financially able to travel outside their country is beyond doubt. Last year, 56 million tourists from the mainland travelled abroad, an increase of 8.3 million or 17.5 per cent on 2009's figure of 47.7 million.

Regional destinations, including Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, were the most popular, and many cruise operators are catering to this fondness for relatively local destinations. "A lot of people choose to cruise from Tianjin or Shanghai to Korea or Japan," Mr Li says.

While the much higher cost of European or Caribbean trips is one barrier, language is another reason why Chinese cruise ship passengers like to take shorter cruises from their home country. Chinese travellers taking voyages on the other side of the world often find that few passengers or crew can speak their language.

Things might however be easier for Chinese travellers in future. Just as many UAE hotels have hired Chinese staff to cater to guests from the world's most populous country, so cruise companies have indicated, in discussions with Mr Li's firm, a willingness to employ more Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking crew. This is vital, he says, if they are to attract Chinese passengers.

"There are [Chinese] people who are interested in European and North American cruises, but they fear the language barrier," Mr Li says.

"Sometimes the films and other things are all in English. They feel bored because there's nothing in Chinese."



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