Traditionally, well-heeled Indians would travel for leisure to destinations in South East Asia and Europe. However, during the last 18 months, there has been a spurt in Indians travelling to the UAE (United Arab Emirates). This has been primarily because of a stronger dollar (meaning better currency exchange rates for tourists), falling oil prices and rising supply of available hotel rooms.
"Proximity to India makes the UAE a good option for a short vacation - good as a weekend getaway or even as a week-long break. There are a variety of new attractions and experiences that have come up both in Abu Dhabi and Dubai making it a great option for repeat visitors," says Nancy Castelino, VP Marketing for Mercury Travels, one of the country's oldest travel services companies.
Typically, Dubai has attracted the lion's share of tourists flowing in to the UAE, but the Emirati capital Abu Dhabi is working hard to present itself as an alternative destination in the region. Last year, a record three million tourists visited the Emirate, according to the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA Abu Dhabi). And this year, that number is expected to rise about 25%.
One of the countries the TCA is concentrating on is India.
"We have a history with India. Indians rank first on the list of guests in Abu Dhabi hotels. We're trying to attract more Indian consumers to the region," Saeed Al Dhaheri, Cruises Sector and city tour manager for TCA Abu Dhabi told timesofindia.com.
As Gerardo Lianes, the Executive Director of Destination Management, MIRAL pointed out: "India has a huge middle class and they want to see the world."
One of the fastest growing segments in tourism in Abu Dhabi is cruise tourism, which grew at more than 10 percent last year. This Emirati city is positioning itself as a culturally authentic, family friendly destination for cruise passengers. While Indians make up the largest numbers in hotel occupancy, getting them on a cruise in the region has so far proved to be challenging.
This was one of the focal points of discussion at the recently concluded Seatrade Middle East Forum in Abu Dhabi. Of the more than 300,000 cruise tourists that passed through Abu Dhabi last year, a mere 9% were Indians.
- Why Abu Dhabi as a Cruise Destination
"The region has much to offer travellers who are looking for something different. For many people, the Gulf's landscapes are yet to be discovered," says Darren Peisley, acting CEO of the Hall Group.
The Arabian Gulf is the third most popular destination in the winter cruising market for Europe and the US - and now this alliance hopes to expand to new markets like China and India. Experts feel the region has remarkable diversity and the biggest challenge is to communicate that to the consumers, especially in newer markets.
Abu Dhabi is a key component of Cruise Arabia - the two other cities in the UAE being Dubai and Sharjah. The alliance also includes Oman, Qatar and Bahrain. A key attribute of this regional strategy is to differentiate the visitor experience not just in each of the countries but also at each port.
Abu Dhabi now boasts of the Arabian Gulf's only dedicated desert island cruise stopover - the Sir Bani Yas island. The cruise beach was formally opened in December 2016 and the island has already been voted the 'Word's leading sustainable tourism destination' at the World Travel Awards.
"Together with Abu Dhabi Ports and Etihad Airways we have achieved growth through developing long-term partnerships and cooperation, which adds more value to the services and facilities we offer for tourists coming to the region," says Saif Saeed Ghobash, the director general of TCA Abu Dhabi.
The Sir Bani Yas beach is expected to attract more than 60,000 passengers from 39 stopover cruise line calls in its first season alone.
The opening of the new integrated cruise terminal in the heart of Abu Dhabi last year has also contributed to the growth of cruise ship arrivals. The terminal has exclusive check-in facilities with Etihad Airways and has increased access for passengers to visit mainland attractions like the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, which is a mere 20 minutes drive, or to the Saadiyat cultural district that will see Louvre Abu Dhabi opening later this year.
- How Indians are looking at Abu Dhabi
Indian travel services are now increasingly promoting Abu Dhabi as a tourist destination, especially for those travellers who have been to Dubai and want a holiday a short flight away. The number of tourists from India visiting the city has grown by about 30 per cent each year. Abu Dhabi is especially attractive as it is a 4-hour flight from Delhi or Mumbai and the national carrier Etihad Airways has partnered with Jet Airways to have connecting flights to all major Indian cities.
"It has all that Dubai has to offer in terms of the hotels, shopping, excursions etc. and lots more like the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the Ferrari World, the Falcon Hospital etc. And if one still wants to go across to Dubai, them it's only a short ride away. Moreover, the quality is as good and the rates are lower, hence that makes it very attractive for travellers.
"In addition, a large number of holiday goers to Dubai also include Abu Dhabi and Yas Island as a day trip or an overnight stay destination," said Nancy Castelino, VP Marketing for Mercury Travels.
Abu Dhabi is also gaining popularity as a destination for weddings and for school and college reunions, as it is well connected with India, Europe and the United States. Castelino says the cruise market is gaining popularity and there are many more people opting for cruises. The bug bear - customers would prefer if cruises start from India. And that is something the cruise line companies agree with.
"The Indian subcontinent will be a big port of call for Cruise Arabia, especially the European cruises. We can go and do longer itineraries and further go away from the region into the Indian Ocean sector," said Chris Coates, the commercial director of Cruise and Maritime Voyages, to timesofindia.com.
Christopher Allen, Vice President of one of the largest cruise companies, Royal Caribbean concurs but says challenges exist:
"India was critical to expanding the itinerary to 12-14 days. It expands the breadth and marketability for the region. Challenges of infrastructure exist and that needs to improve".
Source: Abu Dhabi Ports