Cover Tahira Yaqoob jumps aboard Royal Caribbean's Brilliance of the Seas to discover why Dubai is becoming a new base for cruising in the Middle East.
Dubai, the new port of call for cruise liners
Down at Port Rashid, the Queen Elizabeth 2 sits forlornly. It has been many months since her decks echoed with the revelry of cruises past. Retired and awaiting refurbishment as a floating hotel since November 2008 after nearly 40 years of crossing the world's oceans, she makes for a mournful sight. Even more so now there is a newer, flashier ship in town - or several, to be precise. Like the ageing wife of a Russian billionaire, ousted in favour of a younger, more attractive model, the grand dame of the seas has to contend with sitting in the shadow of her latest rival. Berthed just yards away is Brilliance of the Seas, the most recent arrival at Dubai's now bustling port. At 294m long, Brilliance and the QE2 are the same length. But sitting stern to bow, the short distance between them tells a thousand stories about how far cruising has come since the older ship first set sail in 1969.
Back in the glory days of seafaring journeys, cruise liners represented a glamorous way of travelling for the wealthy and well-heeled. The voyage was an adventure and ships were regal affairs with nightly banquets, guests resplendent in ball gowns and a stiff formality which has long since been abandoned. These days passengers still want an adventure - only they want it with limitless buffets, swimming pools, rock-climbing walls and crazy golf. In a world where tourism has suffered a devastating fallout from the economic crisis, cruising is the one sector in the travel industry which appears to be bucking the trend. Sales are growing, thanks to plummeting prices of all-inclusive on-board packages, triggered by competition between cruise liners, while the appeal of having numerous, increasingly dynamic facilities on board and stopping in several different countries in one holiday has found a new audience. Dubai's Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) cannily realised that while hotel occupancy in the emirate was badly hit, the cruise sector continued to boom. Two months ago, with a "build it and they will come" policy, officials opened a new cruise terminal at Port Rashid, replacing the temporary flatpack marquees that had been in place before. It has already had an impact, with Brilliance, owned by Royal Caribbean International, enjoying its first season in Dubai this spring, joining two Costa ships, Luminosa and its new sister ship, Deliziosa, as well as Aida's Diva liner on a week-long tour of the Arabian Gulf. Less than a decade ago, a paltry 7,000 cruisers docked at Dubai every year. Italy's Costa Cruises estimates it will have carried 140,000 passengers by the time the season finishes in May, pumping more than US$18.8 million (Dh69 million) into Dubai's economy, while a total of 120 ships are expected in the port this year bearing more than 325,000 travellers. Last year alone Dubai welcomed 100 cruise ships with 260,000 tourists. As well as the regulars - Costa has been plying the region since 2006, Aida since 2007 - the emirate entertains sporadic visits from the likes of Cunard's Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria and P&O's Arcadia.
DTCM is hoping the new facilities will bring a lot more and estimates that by 2015 there will be twice the number of ships with 575,000 passengers. And there is good reason to be optimistic; since the 2,500-capacity Brilliance launched out of Dubai in January, she has enjoyed a higher than average occupancy on every seven-day voyage, with more than 2,000 passengers and 870 crew on board on each trip. "Cruise ship passengers will always spend money in ports, depending on how much there is for them to buy," declares her Danish captain, master Henrik Sorensen, 35. "This region is new, it is an area of the world we have not offered before and the climate is great at this time of year. "The area might not be very developed yet but tourism officials have realised what kind of business cruises are bringing. Out here, they could do amazing things. I think we will see this region fill with terminals and destinations for cruise ships." On her weekly return to Dubai, Brilliance's gleaming white flanks, frantically touched up by painters in every port, seem to taunt the QE2's lacklustre frame. And well she might, for this is no ordinary ship: weighing 90,000 tonnes, she boasts eight bars, six restaurants, a theatre, cinema and nightclub as well as a mini golf course, basketball court, two swimming pools, a rock-climbing wall and a children's activity centre.
There is a running track around her top 13th deck, with six laps equivalent to a mile; a salon where women can be coiffed before formal dinners and a spa offering Elemis facials and massages; in short, Brilliance, which first sailed in 2002, is a floating self-contained resort you could choose not to leave for the entire week. Astonishingly, she is not the most awe-inspiring in Royal Caribbean's fleet and is dwarfed by the 362m-long, 20-storey Oasis of the Seas, launched in January as the world's biggest cruise ship and capable of carrying 6,296 passengers. Indeed, it is somewhat surprising the American cruise company behind the record-breaking ship and the emirate of superlatives, boasting the world's tallest building, biggest fountain and largest shopping mall, did not join forces earlier. Brilliance plied a course around the Mediterranean before arriving in the UAE and will return there laterthis month, once temperatures get too hot. Her route around the Gulf goes from Dubai to Muscat, Fujairah, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain and back to her starting point a week later. There is a bristle of anticipation in the air as more than 2,000 passengers check in before boarding, and I join them to experience for myself what gems the region has to offer first-time Gulf cruisers. I embarked on my first cruise seven years ago somewhat cynically, expecting a tacky resort on water. After a jaunt around Europe, I was pleasantly surprised by the lively atmosphere on board but declared I would not do another. Then Alaska called, followed by the Galapagos and the Caribbean, among others, and five cruises later, I can no longer claim to be a detractor. I have seen glaciers calving and cracking before me and humpback whales fluting in Juneau, witnessed seals weaning newborn pups on Fernandina island in the Galapagos and ridden horseback in the sea in Montego Bay. Cruising has given me the opportunity to see and experience things I would never have imagined. The itinerary for Brilliance is rather more familiar to me but for many of the passengers - of whom more than half are British - it is their first taste of the Middle East outside Dubai. A number were tempted to experience the delights of the Gulf after getting a taste for the region from previous holidays in the city.
First they have to check in at the terminal, which acts as a sort of immigration service with airport scanners, checking passports and passenger credentials. There is an immediate problem as both Costa ships are also in dock, leaving little room in the new terminal and the Brilliance passengers are relegated to its more spacious predecessor, the marquee. Early arrivals at the airport are taken to Al Boom Tourist Village, where they are treated to a buffet spread - the first of many - as they go through the same procedure. The captain watches the shoreside hustle and bustle from his bridge on the 10th deck of the ship, which resembles a Star Trek set with futuristic high chairs complete with joysticks and control pads, a glass-walled exterior and numerous computer screens and radars mapping out the territory for miles out to sea. "The terminal is functional for a ship this size, but it is one ship at a time," he sighs. "It is built more for show." There is another problem for some passengers: anyone who lives outside the 33 visa-exempt countries has to buy three separate visas for each UAE port at a total cost of $240 (Dh880). "It is adding costs to holidays for people who just want to come in and take a cruise," says Helen Beck, regional director for Royal Caribbean in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. "There needs to be some rationalisation of this. Cruising is a growth market within the tourism sector but this has lost us and Emiratis business and puts a negative spin on things. We really need to have a specific cruise visa that can be processed once. I am concerned about this as it is off-putting to tourists." George Varghese, of the Rais Hassan Saadi Group, which manages the port for DTCM, says discussions are ongoing regarding possible expansion plans and to iron out teething problems. "What we require is that when a ship comes in, she should have proximity to the shore, working space available, and a user-friendly terminal," he adds. Most guests are oblivious to this as most of the 48 countries they hail from are either in the UK or western Europe. While Americans and Canadians are keen cruisers, only 13 per cent of those on board come from those places, perhaps deterred by security fears or the long flight to Dubai. Ken Lantz, 68, a retired trader, is an exception and has flown in from Canada with his wife Enid, 67, a retired secretary. "The cruise aspect appealed and we know little about this region," he says. Hundreds of the British contingent have been drawn by the promise of an escape from the long, chilly winter at home and the relatively short flight. Jackie Scott, 47, a tax collector, and her husband Mike, 56, a lawyer, have come from Glasgow for an annual jaunt to Dubai for some winter sun and decided to combine this trip with their love of cruising. "It represents value for money," she says. "It is just so relaxing and there is heaps to do on board. I am interested in seeing the difference between Middle Eastern cultures." We sail through check-in in a matter of minutes, emerge dockside and are left to gawp at Brilliance's vast size. She might not be the biggest in the fleet but she is still large enough to take your breath away. I am ushered to my cabin, which comes complete with double bed, ample wardrobe space, a television and a small sofa. Although Brilliance is only eight years old, flock carpets and stained bathroom shelves make my tiny en suite look a tad shabby, and I wasn't enamoured of the screaming baby next door. It is cosy enough, though, and owes more to wear-and-tear than a want of cleaning; indeed, my "stateroom attendant", Eric Audain, cannot do enough to ensure a pleasant stay and dives in to scrub the place every time I pop out. "Is there anything I can get you? No? Well, you have seven days to think of something," he chuckles in a Trinidadian drawl. Life on board is so busy there is little time to spend in one's cabin. The days are filled with excursions at each port; then it is back on board before the ship sails at about 6pm every night, only to drop anchor in a different destination - and often different country - every morning. In Dubai the choices include city tours, dune safaris and a seaplane adventure, giving stunning views of the Palm Jumeirah, Palm Jebel Ali and the Burj Khalifa as the aircraft loops around them.
Fujairah offers dhow cruises, mountain drives and beach days, Abu Dhabi has trips ranging from a tour of the Falcon Hospital to high tea at the Emirates Palace hotel. Muscat invites passengers to go dolphin watching, fort-trekking or -fishing, and Bahraini excursions map out the country's 7,000-year history and traditions. For those who choose not to step ashore - and there are plenty who prefer to lounge by the pools or read on deck - there are on-board activities ranging from dance classes and art auctions to belly flop competitions and bingo. A common grumble is the cost of the day trips - ranging from $42 (Dh154) to $435 (Dh1,600), which Royal Caribbean says it implements to cover vetting procedures for tour operators. They can effectively double the price of the cruise and unsightly industrial ports such as Fujairah deter some passengers from exploring further. Jan Hooper, 54, who works for a food distribution company in England, says: "Nothing on the trips jumped out as a must-do and they were very expensive. We decided to stay on board in Fujairah. The main reason we came was the weather." Her friend Lyn Brandrith, 59, a secretary, adds: "We are not very impressed with where we have been taken to but we cannot fault it as we love cruising. The weather is a big plus and as we paid £850 [$1,292; Dh4,740] each, including flights, the cost is on a par with an average holiday, except we get to see different places every day."
Every night there are three-course dinners in the main restaurants, where the executive chef Frank Lehmann and his team of 95 chefs work furiously to dish out 17,000 meals a day. Despite the scale of the operation, the standard is generally high, with the option of having a casual bite instead in one of a number of cafes, a gourmet extravaganza in the Italian restaurant Portofino or a steak in Chops Grille. As with most cruises, passengers fall into the more mature age bracket, and the evening entertainment reflects that, from a Rat Pack tribute band to karaoke and jazz cabaret. For Chris Allchorne, 75, and his wife Betty, 76, from the UK, the cruise is a trip down memory lane as the couple lived in Muscat for 13 years until he retired as an aircraft engineer in 1997. "They were the best years of our lives and it is wonderful to see it all again - it has changed so much since our last visit," says Betty. As well as expats, the passengers include UAE residents and visitors from Bahrain, Syria, Iran, Jordan and Kuwait, although they are fewer in number.
Wazif Zia, 28, an engineer, and Shahinda Khalifa, 27, an accounts manager, are among a party of four from Dubai who each paid $817 (Dh3,000) to explore their neck of the woods by ship. Wazif says: "It is more about the ship than anything else. We came to enjoy the cruise and the activities on board, which have been great." Noaf al Mizhaa, 25, a lawyer from Bahrain, admits she was disappointed when her father-in-law presented her with a cruise around the Gulf region as a wedding present. "I thought we might be going to Europe or the Caribbean but instead he said: 'You're going to Oman'," she says. "I did not see the point in going to see mosques and forts, which we have at home, but I did not realise there would be so much to do on board. It feels like being in a hotel." Her husband Khalifa al Shrooqi, 24, a police officer, adds: "This is a dream come true for us. I have only seen ships like this in films." Helen Beck says there is a drive to encourage more GCC nationals to cruise: "The Middle Eastern market is still immature but we are pitching it as the Gulf getaway and encouraging people to come and see their own backyard." firstname.lastname@example.org
On the seven-day Dubai cruise, inside staterooms on Brilliance of the Seas cost from $780 (Dh2,865), while staterooms with balconies cost from $1,470 (Dh5,400) per person, based on two people sharing. The last Dubai cruise this year leaves on Monday, April 12. Next year, the cruise is available from January 24 to March 21. Also next year, on March 28 and April 9, Brilliance will undertake a 12-night Dubai & India cruise to Muscat, Cochin, Goa and Mumbai before returning to Dubai. To book, go to www.royalcaribbean-arabia.com