Just last month, off the coast of Somalia—where pirates occasionally hijack cargo ships —passengers on the fancy, all-inclusive Seabourn Encore were enjoying martinis and opera around the pool when out of the darkness arrived a small motorboat. The crowd rushed to the side rail for a view.
Onto the cruise ship climbed several burly security guards with cases of “conventional weapons,” which would provide, as the captain explained, an added layer of protection for a potentially tricky passage.
“This is just like a James Bond movie,” said Dr. Jack King, an orthodontist from Dayton, Ohio—and one of 548 passengers sailing on a three-week voyage from Rome to Dubai.
A week later, near Abu Dhabi, an alarm sounded, signaling the arrival of another boat. This time, it was stocked with 500-gram tins of Sterling Caviar and Champagne for Encore guests to enjoy in the warm surf of a private beach.
Cruising from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf brings a sense of intrigue—and often, a fair share of five-star accoutrements. And more and more travelers are catching on.
A total of 87 cruise ships docked in Dubai in 2009, a number that nearly doubled to 157 during the 2016-2017 winter season. At last count, 18 companies were docking in the Middle East this winter, with five cruise lines doing a full season there; additional companies, including Carnival Corp.’s P&O Cruises, are planning new itineraries to come online in 2019.
Here’s why: With Middle Eastern countries investing heavily in infrastructure, cruise lines now see the region as an attractive place to move their Europe fleets in the winter season, while travelers see the itineraries as an easy way to check off several bucket list attractions they may not previously have visited.
The Egyptian pyramids, the rose-hued ancient city of Petra in Jordan, the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem—the Middle East has many tourism calling cards, and cruising is an easy way to see several of them in one fell swoop. Longer voyages such as the Seabourn Encore’s include visits to the latter two, plus sailings through the Suez Canal and camel rides in Wadi Rum, the red desert in Jordan made famous by Lawrence of Arabia.
Even on itineraries as short as a week, cruisers can catch a whiff of Old Arabia in Oman, where souk merchants peddle frankincense incense and perfume, and then experience the modern delights of Abu Dhabi and Dubai—including the gleaming new Louvre Abu Dhabi. The ancient fort in the sleek city of Bahrain and the millennia-old artifacts in the I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art, in Doha, are excellent examples of how these itineraries provide compelling bridges between old and new.
Combining these places on a land trip requires expert-level planning. Dicey relationships between neighboring governments mean you may get turned away from a border for having old stamps from a rival country in your passport; many prime attractions require the assistance of a guide and driver.
By ship, it’s foolproof: Visas are arranged by the cruise line and issued as you pull into port. And travelers worried about security will feel comforted by the constant presence of armed guards, both on and off shore, though you may not see them. (At publication, only Jordan and Israel were listed on the State Department’s travel warning list, though not the areas within them visited by cruise passengers).
There are other benefits to luxury cruising in the Middle East. Open bars are easier to find on ships than on dry land. On the Encore, luxury shopping literally sails with you: If you didn’t find what you wanted at the gold souk in Dubai, you could spring for a $41,000 Brilliant Stars diamond-and-yellow-sapphire necklace available on the ship.
Perhaps most important, shore excursions always come with local guides who can help break cultural barriers, whether you’re touring opulent mosques, exploring labyrinthine souks, or riding the world’s fastest roller coaster at Ferrari World Abu Dhabi.
They also help cruisers navigate language barriers and local dress codes. (Generally, tourists are advised just to dress “modestly.”)
“Absolutely I had some trepidation, and also a bit of an obsession of what we were supposed to wear,” said Vanessa Bechtel, 38, who heads the Ventura County Community Foundation in Santa Barbara, Calif., and was traveling with her husband, Jim. “Maybe the biggest factor for me was would I dislike the culture, was I going to be in an area of the world where I would not feel comfortable.”
Bechtel said her experience was eye-opening.
“I think about all the things I was worried about: pirates, violence, being hated coming from the U.S., being a young woman, not understanding the customs well enough, and inadvertently being offensive,” she said. “I read somewhere that women shouldn’t shake hands. I shook hands with so many people.
From a cruise line perspective, the Middle East is a potential gold mine—assuming it remains politically stable. For one thing, they can use these itineraries to monetize the time it takes to reposition a ship from its summer season in the Mediterranean to its winter season in Asia or the South Pacific. (On Bechtel’s sailing, the Encore was on its way to Singapore—a trip the ship will do in reverse next spring, subbing Athens for Rome).
These itineraries also appeal to a wide range of travelers. So far, long voyages seem to cater to continentals with ample vacation allotments. One-week cruises, meanwhile, attract mostly Germans and Italians on what is currently a predominance of ships run by German and Italian lines, such as AIDA Cruises and Costa Cruises Spa.
Ultimately, the hope is that locals, including expats and consumers in nearby India, will catch the cruise bug, though there are considerable caveats for practicing Muslims: Ship facilities are still western by design, with co-ed swimming pools and bars serving alcohol.
In September, after getting assurances that Halal food would be served on ships of MSC Cruises and Celebrity Cruises sailing from Abu Dhabi, the emirate launched the first campaign in the Gulf Cooperation Council to encourage cruise vacations.
Even if they’re not on board, locals are invested. A growing cruise market means more visitors—and tourism dollars spent—on dry land. That’s why Abu Dhabi opened its first dedicated cruise terminal two years ago, followed by last year’s debut of Sir Bani Yas Island Cruise Beach, a manmade port accessible by tender. “In the whole region, there is no such other cruise product being provided,” said Saeed Abdullah Al Dhaheri, manager of Abu Dhabi’s cruise sector.
The effort is paying off. Cruise passengers in Abu Dhabi increased tenfold over the last decade, with 345,000 arrivals last season. That number is set to increase by an additional 5 percent this season. Dubai, meanwhile, is projected to top 1 million cruise passengers by 2020—while also launching two additional cruise terminals that are currently under development.
Larry Pimentel, president and chief executive officer of Azamara Club Cruises, a small luxury fleet under the purview of Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd, predicts that this is just the beginning of an upward trajectory for Middle Eastern cruising. “I absolutely think the Middle East will become a bigger player in cruise,” he said.
Sailing through the region last year, during an extended stay in Muscat, Pimentel himself hosted an excursion to spend a night in Louis Vuitton tents set up in a Bedouin community in the desert. It was a huge hit. Next year, two of his three, 690-passenger ships will stop at Muscat for an overnight.
“The [Middle East] is of significant interest to today’s luxury travelers, who are looking for cultural immersion and authentic experiences,” said Richard Meadows, president of Seabourn. Guests want to feel like they are part of the local landscape, “not just visiting to take in the most popular tourist sites,” he said.
They’re succeeding. While her friends thought she was crazy for cruising in the Middle East, Seabourn passenger Bechtel hopes to return to the region soon.
Before then, she may reconnect with a friend made during a visit to a fish market outside Muscat, a man with three wives and a 22-person household.
“Our lives are completely different. But we talked about where we were from, and it turns out he has a niece in Washington. So I sent him a text with our contact information,” Bechtel said.