At first glance, the likes of Qatar and Oman may seem like odd places to take a cruise. While the Mediterranean and Caribbean are firmly established as hotspots for winter sun, the Middle East has not traditionally attracted the same profile. With a lack of historical precedent, just 1% of the global cruise market operates in the Gulf.

Times, however, are changing. As Dubai gears up for World Expo 2020 – and Qatar for the 2022 FIFA World Cup – the region is placing a concerted focus on tourism. We are seeing a surge of infrastructural development, ranging from airport expansions to high-speed railways, and the cruise segment is growing in tandem.

"The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) governments have recognised that cruising needs to be part of their overall tourism strategy," explains Helen Beck, who works in a tri-branded role across Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises and Azamara Club Cruises. "The government agencies involved see it as a very good way to grow their overall tourism numbers – and not just a niche part of the strategy, but an intrinsic part."

This has been borne out most clearly by the recent expansion of Port Rashid in Dubai, which saw the opening of a third cruise terminal in December 2014. Measuring 300,000ft² and capable of welcoming 14,000 passengers a day, the terminal will increase the port’s handling capacity from two million to seven million tourists a year. Already, the ramifications are being felt – over the 2014-15 winter season, Dubai is expecting a 19% upswing in passengers.

"Ten years from now the Middle East should bea strong cruise market, with many more operators basing ships in the UAE."

Similarly, Abu Dhabi is investing in a dedicated cruise terminal that is set to reach completion next year. The new building, at Zayed Port, will play host to one of Celebrity’s Millennium-class ships, the Celebrity Constellation from November 2016. While cruising is in its infancy here, passenger arrivals have increased fivefold since 2007 and the deployment of the Celebrity vessel will likely continue this trend.

Ease of access

All this said, infrastructural investments are only half the story. You can have the most capacious cruise terminals imaginable, but they won’t foster tourism development if visitors are otherwise deterred. Until recently, there was a major stumbling block to the growth of international tourism across the region.

"In the UAE, it used to be that guests would need single entry visas," explains Beck. "So if you were travelling from Russia or India or China, instead of getting a visa on arrival you’d need to get two or even three single entry visas in advance, which added to both process and cost. For a family of four there could be an extra $600 or more to pay just to get in and out of the UAE."

According to the European Tour Operators Association, 21% of prospective tourists to the region ultimately desist due to the visa process. Government agencies have therefore been working hard to ease the entry requirements.

"It would be devastating to allow bureaucracy to deny the Middle East tourism sector vital revenue," says Antonio Paradiso, executive director of emerging markets at MSC Cruises. "This is particularly important for cruisers from China, Russia and the other emerging markets, where MSC is either the market leader or a major player and is working to make deeper inroads."

Last year, the GCC member states – Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar – signed a decisive new agreement. Once the system is finalised and implemented, it will create a multiple-entry visa that allows unimpeded access to all six. Currently being trialled on expats living in the region, it will eventually be expanded to travellers from 35 countries across the world.

The visa could spell a sea change for the Middle East cruise industry. It will mean that the GCC resembles the Schengen Area in Europe, which comprises 26 countries and can be accessed on a single visa. It will also mean far less of a headache for potential cruise passengers, who will be able to embark at ports across the Gulf without a barrage of extra paperwork.

"We’ve been advocating that any easing of visa constraints immediately makes the destination more popular," says Beck. "So it’s good to see that our collective messages are being heard by the GCC. It’s a critical competitive point if you look at other winter sun destinations such as the Caribbean islands, which are sometimes covered under US visas but not always."

Growth spurt

Clearly, this change in tack could spell big business for the cruise sector, with interest in the region expected to surge. Are operators ready to avail themselves of the opportunities in store?

"I can only speak on behalf of MSC Cruises, and believe me, we’re ready," asserts Paradiso. "We’re really optimistic about the Middle East. Market penetration is still remarkably low, which in our eyes means enormous potential for growth. We will continue to build on the success we are enjoying in the Middle East, expanding and reinforcing our presence in the UAE with more staff, and ensuring our organisation and structure match the pace of growth we are experiencing."

Beck concurs. Several months ago, she attended the biennial Sea Trade Middle East Maritime conference in Muscat, which, she says, attracted a higher number of cruise industry representatives than ever before.

"You had everyone from the small expedition cruise companies all the way through to the larger cruise operators," she recalls. "The destination is doing the right thing in the right steps, and now the industry is hearing it and the cruise lines are all paying attention. I would expect there to be more operators coming in over the next few years."

Royal Caribbean International will evince its own commitment to the region later this year, when Splendour of the Seas arrives in Dubai for winter 2015-16. While two ships – Brilliance of the Seas and Serenade of the Seas – were stationed here in the past, they were removed in 2013, due in part to the EU debt crisis. Today, we are seeing renewed demand not just from Europe, but also from non-traditional source markets such as Brazil, China and the US.

Although Dubai has long been the cruising frontrunner in the region, other parts of the GCC are upping the ante. Helped along by the Cruise Arabia initiative (a joint tourism promotion programme run by Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, Oman Ministry of Tourism and Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing), government ministries are working together to finalise their plans for new ports.

"We’ve been advocating that any easing of visa constraints immediately makes the destination more popular. So it’s good to see that our collective messages are being heard by the GCC."

There’s a lot of development, which is encouraging, although there’s still work to be done," says Paradiso. "Oman is developing quite rapidly, with focus on new beach calls, and in Khasab there is new infrastructure on its way. In Salalah there will be a new cruise terminal in two years; in Muscat, Sultan Qaboos Port is developing terminals, attractions and facilities, and at Shinas and Sur developments are in the pipeline. Qatar has invested over $5 billion in a new Doha terminal and infrastructure, and even well-developed Dubai is evolving further, with new terminals this year and next."

The spice of life

In the future, Beck thinks developers will need to focus on creating more destinations. Cruise lines are currently faced with limited choices, and are forced to adopt similar itineraries. While there have been steps in the right direction – not least Abu Dhabi’s Si Bani Yas island, which is being developed as a beach destination – she feels more needs to be done on land to harness the region’s appeal.

"To be able to do desert visits in every port is lovely, but it’s really critical we take advantage of the uniqueness of some of the places we visit," she says. "I think there’s probably a bit of work to be done there to help us differentiate our land programme offerings."

Paradiso agrees. "It would be ideal if more ports in the region were able to develop with the needs of the cruise industry in mind," he says. "This means increasing the overall number and choice of destinations in the region and developing the choices of shore excursions available. It also means taking steps to bring down the port costs, which are currently high."

Still, all signs suggest that the Middle East cruise market is evolving fast. As it becomes easier for international visitors to obtain a visa, and new infrastructure takes shape, the Gulf looks set to sharpen its tourism sector. It is estimated that by 2020, the region will attract more than 1.6 million cruise passengers, representing a compound annual growth rate of 8% since 2012.

"Ten years from now the Middle East should be a strong cruise market, with many more operators basing ships in the UAE," says Paradiso. "MSC Cruises is in it for the long haul, and we’ll look back, happy that we were one of the first to gain a foothold.

While growth will surely only come if the region continues to diversify and governments keep investing, there are real grounds for optimism in the years ahead. With overall tourism set to surge, the cruise industry may prove a key beneficiary of that upward curve.