Just a few years ago, Dubai was little more than a blip on the world's cruise radar. Then cruise visitor numbers surged 38 per cent one season, followed by a whopping 51 per cent the next. Last season saw 846,176 passenger arrivals, and the maiden visits of 14 ships. The current cruise season, which started in October 2019 and finishes in April, is expected to see a million cruise passengers disembark in the desert city.
Are you going to be hearing much more about Dubai as a cruise destination? You bet. The Dubai government has made no bones about wanting to be the "cruise hub of the region" and the city a "must-see cruise destination". By 2030 it intends to be the Miami of the Middle East, with marine tourism to be a significant part of the economy.
The black cloud on the seascape? Last year UK-based P&O Cruises cancelled its Dubai visits following shipping tensions between Britain and Iran. Although no other cruise lines followed suit, and P&O Cruises says it will return this coming season, the Straits of Hormuz have long been a flashpoint in global tensions. Dubai's ambitious plans could yet be scuttled by the current brinkmanship between Iran and the USA – or by coronavirus.
For the moment, calm seas prevail. Much of the growth has been driven by budget megaships from companies such as MSC Cruises, P&O Cruises, Germany-based TUI Cruises and Royal Caribbean, which recently expanded its Middle East headquarters in Dubai. The city's Mina Rashid Cruise Terminal is designed to berth seven mega-ships simultaneously.
This season has seen six megaships docked on two occasions. Meanwhile Costa Diadema homeported in Dubai the first time, and MSC's Bellisima and Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas were among other ships that made their first visits. Towards the end of 2020, Dubai Harbour will add another two cruise terminals on a kilometre-long quay, expected to handle some 250,000 passengers during its opening season.
Shivering Europeans beset by winter are driving the boom, but Australians have good reason to rejoice, since we're avid cruisers and already fond of Dubai, with 231,000 of us stopping over in 2019. Dubai hotels have become expensive, making cruises a viable alternative, especially with the government's Dubai Stopover Pass, which gives discounts on attractions to cruise passengers.
Those who aren't megaship fans needn't miss out, because some 20 cruise lines now call at Dubai. Some offer regional itineraries featuring other ports such as Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Muscat and Doha, while others pass through as they reposition between Europe and Asia. Azamara, Crystal, Ponant, Silversea, Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas and Oceania are among the smaller luxury lines that visit.
A cruise from or through Dubai diffuses some of the anxiety many travellers feel about visiting the Middle East, and makes getting around far easier than is possible overland. You can tick off small nations such as Bahrain, Oman and Qatar and, on wider itineraries, take in Jordan, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.
Crystal Cruises' luxury yacht Crystal Esprit is sailing a 10-night "Emirates Discovery" itinerary departing Dubai on 19 November 2020. The ship will overnight in Muscat, Abu Dhabi and Doha as well as visit Sir Bani Yas Island and Khasab. Khasab is on the Musandum Peninsula of Oman, dubbed the "Norway of Arabia" for its fjord-like landscape of rugged, barren mountains that plunge down to startlingly blue water. There's no cruise terminal in this tranquil destination dominated by a restored fort; passengers are tendered ashore. A dhow ride to spot dolphins is a shore-excursion highlight. Phone 1300 059 260. See crystalcruises.com
If you want to combine Arabian adventure with a spot of golf – and why wouldn't you – then consider Azamara's 10-night "Arabian Golf Cruise" round-trip from Dubai on November 10, 2020 aboard Azamara Pursuit. It visits six ports and offers five rounds of golf at some of the region's most prestigious clubs, such as the oceanfront Saadiyat Beach Golf Club and the Royal Golf Club Bahrain, a challenging 18-hole championship course designed by Colin Montgomerie. Non-golfing spouses will be well satisfied with the region's souks, museums, theme parks and desert landscapes. Phone 1800 754 500; see azamara.com
Luxury small-ship company Ponant has a new "Treasures of the Persian Gulf" cruise on new vessel Le Jacques Cartier. The nine-day sailing departs Muscat on November 19, 2020 and concludes in Dubai, visiting Sur, Khasab, Doha, Sir Bani Yas and Abu Dhabi along the way. The cruise is accompanied by Yannick Lintz, the Louvre's curator and director of its Islamic Arts department, and an excursion spends considerable time at the recently opened Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum. Doha also has a superb museum, devoted entirely to Islamic art from across the world. Phone 1300 737 178; see au.ponant.com
If you like your cruising to combine port exploration with relaxing sea days, consider Seabourn's 16-day "Holy Land & Arabian Gems" itinerary to Dubai on Seabourn Ovation, which departs Piraeus (Athens) on November 7, 2020. It explores Crete with a stop at Agios Nikoloas, and Israel from the ports of Haifa and Ashdod, then continues to Aqaba in Jordan (where many passengers opt for an excursion to Petra) and Muscat in Oman. You'll transit the cruise bucket-list Suez Canal at a sedate speed, sandwiched between a convoy of ships and desert sands. Phone 13 24 02; see seabourn.com