The region’s cruise sector had been in decline  since the global downturn and the subsequent effects of the Arab Spring. However with significant infrastructure investment, easing visa regulations and creative marketing, the cruise sector is bouncing-back.
One challenge that the region faced was the lack of ports of call and the location of cruise facilities – most of the berths for cruise vessels were located within commercial shipping ports, which was not particularly conducive for leisure visitors.
In response, Mina Zayed Port in Abu Dhabi is currently undergoing major redevelopment creating a dedicated cruise terminal. Dubai has been upgrading Port Rashid to accommodate seven vessels simultaneously, up from the current five, as part of its strategy to attract 450,000 cruise tourists by 2016.
“Regional governments have invested into the infrastructure required to develop cruise tourism, which is bringing growing confidence to the market,” said Mark Walsh, Portfolio Director, Reed Travel Exhibitions.
Bahrain is restarting US$80 million worth of mixed-use projects at the Muharraq coastal site and King Fasial Corniche seafront. Oman plans a new 100-berth marina project as part of the Jebel Sifah development and in Aqaba, Jordan, phase one of the Marsa Zayed project will be completed in 2015 at a cost of over US$ 815 million.
Relaxed visa requirements  have also helped the cruise sector, especially when multiple ports of call are a part of the cruise agenda. GCC countries through bilateral agreements with other nations have allowed a new wave of visitors to apply for visa on arrival and the UAE is apparently considering a new multi-entry cruise visa. This is creating opportunities for local tour operators offering select activity packages to showcase their services at ATM and strong creative marketing campaigns have raised the profile of destinations such as Salalah and Musandam.
“Tailor-made cruises are trending at the moment and growth in that segment is expected moving forward, creating potential new partnerships between cruise companies and bespoke local tour operators,” added Walsh.
The Middle East’s cruise sector will be highly visible and well represented at this year’s Arabian Travel Market (ATM) 2014, which takes place at the Dubai World Trade Centre from 5-8 May, according to show organiser Reed Travel Exhibitions.
An extra hall has been added to this year’s ATM to accommodate 23,500 square metres of floor space – an increase of almost 7% on 2013. The Cruise Pavilion has played its part, more than doubling in size to almost 200 square metres since last year. Exhibitors on the Cruise Pavilion include, Royal Caribbean, Al Marsa Musandam Diving & Cruises, Pullmantur Cruises from Spain and Pearl Marketing Reps from the UK and Cruise Arabia amongst others.
Complementing the cruise pavilion is a cruise seminar which will debate the latest industry issues such as product innovation, premium cabin developments and new destinations.
The session which is moderated by renowned industry professional Alan Le Coyte, includes panelists such as Hamad bin Mejren, Executive Director at the DTCM, Jasem Zaiton, Cruise Manager at DNATA – Gulf Ventures as well as executives from Royal Caribbean and Costa Cruises.
ATM 2014 encompasses more than 40 wide-ranging seminar and tech theatre sessions which besides cruise tourism cover aviation, mobile trends and the rising demand for wellness tourism. Some of the region’s most influential business leaders including Adel Ali, CEO of Air Arabia; Ivan Jakovljevic, Head of Travel, Middle East and North Africa, Google; and Mohammed Al Dhaheri, Strategy & Policy Director, Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority will be speaking, supported by an international line-up of industry experts.
The ATM show has grown to become the largest showcase of its kind in the region and one of the biggest in the world.