The boat market in the GCC has recovered with sailing schools, charterers and yacht builders feeling the benefit
UAE maritime leisure sector a sea of opportunities
Taking a yacht cruise and viewing Dubai's famous architectural wonders from the sea is now high on the "to-do" list of most tourists and residents alike.
In fact an increasing number of people want to sail a yacht themselves as the UAE gets more marinas and there are new sailing schools and boat clubs to join as the maritime leisure industry ramps up.
The global recreational boat market is expected to be worth approximately $23 billion by the end of 2018, according to a Frost & Sullivan report earlier this year, and is expected to reach $28bn to $30bn by 2022. This is mainly due to growth in the emerging markets such as South East Asia and the GCC. "The [overall] marine industry in the UAE is well developed and is forecast to be worth approximately $66bn in 2018," the report says. "However, the recreational boat industry is expected to be worth approximately $1.3bn to $1.5bn. It is an emerging market with high spending power and is expected to provide significant opportunities for investors."
And the UAE's developers have been quick to climb aboard. Announced in January last year Dubai Harbour, by Meraas Holding, will feature the Middle East’s largest marina - projected to have 1,400 berths and capable of accommodating some of the world’s largest yachts. The 20 million square foot project will be developed in several phases and is expected to take four years to complete. It will also include a stunning 135 metre tall lighthouse.
Also last year Dubai developer Nakheel awarded a construction contract worth Dh165m to APPC Piling and Cosntruction to build six marinas at its Deira Islands project, according to the Frost & Sullivan report. The marinas will accommodate a total of 614 boats and yachts up to 60 metres long. It is expected to be completed over a period of two years.
In Abu Dhabi, perhaps the most prestigious venue to park your yacht, or learn how to pilot one, is Yas Marina, especially during the Formula One Etihad Grand Prix. Situated on Yas Island, the 227 berth marina features 7 licensed restaurants and lounges - or you can just watch the race from the comfort of your own deck. It is also home to Abu Dhabi Sailing Academy, which offers sailing courses for adults from basic to top racing levels with experienced and passionate instructors.
Following a downturn as the price of oil fell, the boat market in the GCC has recovered and is expected to remain buoyant in the near future as a result of several coastline developments and increasing demand for marine leisure from both the Emiratis and expatriates, the report said.
And local firms are taking advantage of the rebound. Xclusive Yachts, one of Dubai's most popular yacht chartering companies, recently started its own sailing school to teach folk the art of captaining a leisure boat.
The move by the firm, which owns a fleet of 32 boats, was driven by a growing desire among residents and visitors to learn how to sail.
"The main reason was a lot of demand in people wanting to drive boats themselves," Amit Patel, managing director of Xclusive Yachts, tells The National. "Also, we've always had a demand for training of our own staff in-house, so I thought instead of sending them to a third party, let's do it internally," he adds.
Approved by the Dubai Maritime City Authority (DMCA), the Xclusive Sea School special is also a member of the UK's Royal Yachting Association (RYA).
"The RYA is the number one training centre for sea schools in the world. So it's very prestigious to be an accredited member - we have strict examinations to pass, one needs to be ISO certified, they do random inspections of how you're conducting your training and basically regulate our licensing," Mr Patel says.
The main advantage of learning at an RYA-certified sea school is that it allows you to sail a leisure boat more or less anywhere in the world. While there are a few other sea schools in Dubai, "they have limited accreditation so they might not work in Europe, America or Australia so the student will have to go re-train in RYA", he says.
"It’s not just about issuing a licence, we believe in giving students a 360-degree view of the marina operations. Our classrooms are held on board a 125ft luxury houseboat and new power boats. We strictly follow the RYA rule of having a 1:3 instructor-to-student ratio so each student gets individual attention and ample driving time to make sure they are well equipped to drive a boat alone," Mr Patel says.
The school also offers a two-day power boat level 2 course, and advanced courses for bigger boats and a safety course.
So how has the response been in the initial months?
"In a month, we get around 80-90 students. Sometimes we're fully booked for two months ahead," Mr Patel says.
As well as rising demand for learning sea craft, sales of vessels has also been on the increase, says Gregory Yeakle, CEO of international luxury yacht and boat manufacturer Gulf Craft, based in Ajman. The company posted sales worth Dh85 million at this year's Dubai International Boat Show .
"We are seeing an increase in regional sales in leisure boats and also in superyachts [vessels more than 24m in length] - two ends of the spectrum. There is no longer a homogenous market," Mr Yeakle tells The National.
Gulf Craft has seen a shift in buying habits, too.
"While private ownership continues to dominate the majority of boat sales, x-generation and millennials are shifting towards new models of shared ownership. I would say that the split is 80/20, but the demand is increasing for a more efficient experience," he adds.
Mr Patel agrees, pointing out that the younger generation is happier to avoid the costs associated with pleasure boat ownership.
"Before, it was all about buying your own yacht, telling the world 'I have my own yacht' but I think the cost involved, the regulations and the maintenance is very expensive. The owner will spend nearly 10 per cent of the yacht's cost just maintaining it every year and paying the crew.
"The new generation doesn't want to tie up their money. They'd rather just rent or join a boat club," he says.
His company has been quick to take advantage of this trend by starting a boat club, where for Dh2,000 a month, members get to sail five different types of vessel.
"If you buy a fishing boat, you'll only ever go fishing. But by joining the club, you can try out mini cruisers, wakeboarding and sports cruisers, too," he says.
Another local boating firm, Royal Yachts, is also feeling the benefits of an expanding sector. Established in 2011 with just one vessel, the firms has become a one-stop shop for chartering, managing and dealing in yachts and super boats. Of course, there is a premium to pay for more prestigious vessels; its DXB, a Benetti Classic model, for example, will set you back Dh358,122 per week.
Mr Mr Yeakle is not concerned this renting trend will adversely impact the private sales market.
"Boat clubs make boating more accessible and I don’t really believe that it affects our market. A passionate boat owner will always want to own a boat and use it at his leisure. That market will continue on growing and will increasingly attract people to this amazing lifestyle that will gradually evolve to become a passion," he says.
Mr Patel says the UAE's attraction as a destination has a direct bearing on demand for his boat school.
"We had three students from United Kingdom, they thought 'it's nice weather, nice atmosphere and I can get my licence' - they stayed five nights, did the course, did a bit of sightseeing and went back," he says.
"From the GCC, there are a lot of Saudis, Omanis who come in. I don't think the course is available in other GCC countries, so it makes Dubai a good local option.
"Ten years ago, one would just go on a desert safari, dhow cruise and see the Burj Al Arab. Now everybody comes to Dubai and wants to go on a boat. It's now become one of the top five things to do in Dubai," said Patel.
Mr Yeakle says an increase in berthing spaces in Dubai with projects like the Dubai Canal and the Dubai Harbour will have a big impact on the sector.
But he says in general there is still room for improvement. "What would really make those waterfront developments stand out would be to have shops and restaurants directly accessible by boats.
"This is common in USA, for example, and can be seen on the intra-coastal," he says. "This will move people from doing such activities in their cars to their boats. "