Over the last few years, countries in the Gulf have been stepping up their investments in the tourism sector to garner a generous share of global tourists, including the 21.7 million people expected to go on a cruise in 2014.
However, gradually, cruise operators are also looking at the region in a different light – as a major source of guests on their ships.
“The emphasis needs to be more on the cruise vacationers from the region, which is increasing,” said Dan Essex, CEO, Luxury Cruise Portfolio, an operator that represents several cruise lines in the region.
“Gulf nationals want to travel afield and many cruise lines are looking for source markets in the region.”
According to helen Beck, regional director, International representatives, EMEA, royal Caribbean International, demand for cruise holidays is growing in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE.
“Kuwait has improved the last two years and so have the markets in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria,” said Beck, with the performance of the latter three having been impacted by unrest. 
For the industry’s stakeholders, two challenges dampen enthusiasm for the region’s cruise tourism potential – cumbersome visa costs and a lack of awareness about what a cruise holiday is.
Beck said that both the travel operator and the consumer in the GCC need to be educated about cruise tourism to fully tap the region’s potential as a source market. 
“We need the travel industry to understand the importance of cruising and why they should recommend it,” she said.
“They have to know the basics and then they need to know the differences between various cruise liners. Each of the cruise lines offers something different. The job of the travel agent is to match the customer with the right cruise. If they are not educated about different options it is hard to choose the right one.”
She stressed that though the consumer also needs to be aware of the different types of cruises, it is the travel trade sector that needs more education “because if they don’t understand then if the customer comes in they will not be able to sell it.”
Even as operators look to the Gulf as a potential passenger market, the region’s profile as a destination market is on the rise.
“We have seen success, especially from 2006, mainly because we were successful in convincing key companies in bringing their ships to Dubai,” said Hamad Mejren, executive director of business tourism, Dubai Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM).
According to a study conducted by the DTCM, Dubai alone hopes to see around one million cruise tourists by 2020.
Cruise tourism can also fill the emirate’s coffers with around $3 billion predicted to be added to Dubai’s economy between 2010 and 2015, Mejren said, quoting the study.
With such massive untapped potential, the Gulf’s Arab countries are now joining hands to promote the region as a winter cruise destination. Cruise Arabia, an alliance created by Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Oman in 2013, is one such example.
In addition to the initiative, the GCC is also ramping up its port facilities to attract global cruise liners.
Dubai, for example, has been investing in expanding its cruise terminal to accommodate up to five cruise ships at a time, while Abu Dhabi has been working on a permanent cruise terminal. The new facility will be able to accommodate three to four cruise ships simultaneously. Oman, with three key ports for cruise liners at Muscat, Salalah and Khasab, has also approved plans for a new cruise terminal at the port of Muttrah.
All these measures are inspiring confidence in the Middle East amongst the gamut of cruise line operators, which are in recovery mode globally and constantly on the lookout for new destinations and passenger markets