NCL’s Regional VP of Business Development explains how to ride the wave of the Middle East’s booming cruise sector
Nick Wilkinson is the regional vice president of Business Development for Israel, the Middle East and Africa at Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL). Poised on the crest of the region’s cruise boom with in-depth cruise expertise and hands-on experience, he shared his insights with Connecting Travel.
Connecting Travel: What is the current state of cruise tourism recovery?
Nick Wilkinson: This year saw the beginning of a great cruise comeback. After 500 days not sailing, we restarted sailings out of Athens, out of Barcelona, out of Rome, and across in the States and Alaska, New York and Miami. By the end of Q1 2022, we’ll have all the ships back operating worldwide.
CT:How does the Middle East market factor in the recovery and growth of the cruise sector?
NW: To me, the Middle East, and particularly the GCC, is one of the most exciting areas in the world for cruise. If you look at what’s going on in the Saudi Arabian market with the 2030 Vision of the Royal Prince, and how he is looking to drive tourism with cruise being part of his vision, opportunities across the market are growing quite dramatically.
It’s like the doors have suddenly been opened to access all these customers who want to explore and enjoy cruising
CT: Which are the most popular cruises for the GCC market?
NW: What we find is selling well from the GCC marketplace is the Mediterranean and the Baltic cruises, particularly on the ship Norwegian Epic, the number one ship for the GCC. I think it’s popular for a number of reasons, but primarily because NCL offers freedom and flexibility, and we find that Middle East guests – both expats and nationals – don’t want to be told what to do or where to go. Another thing that’s important to Middle East guests, particularly the Arabic segment of the market, is shopping, and we embark in Rome and Barcelona, which are incredible shopping locations.
In the GCC, currently Dubai is the only embark/disembarkation port. We don’t operate round-trips out of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Jeddah or Muscat, but we visit all these ports on our cruises.
CT: There’s a huge expat demographic across the GCC with around 200 nationalities in residence. How can a cruise agents cater to such a diverse mix of clients?
NW: When appointing a sales manager for the Saudi Arabian market we wanted an Arabic speaker who can also address the expat community. At the moment, we have a good cut-through in the expat community, but we want to grow and drive into the Arabic markets. So, our presentations, training and consumer events are all in Arabic, and that is a major step forward in how we’re going to operate in the markets.
CT: Will there be any special facilities for Muslim travellers?
NW: Our ships have faith rooms, so we can accommodate all different faiths. But we’re very upfront about being an American cruise line, and we don’t want to lose those characteristics. Our customers need consistent standards globally; if they’re getting on an NCL ship in the Mediterranean, it should be the same as an NCL ship in the Caribbean with regard to service, the overall guest experience and the same style.
Norwegian Epic is home to an ice bar
CT: NCL brought in more than 70 new safety measures to reassure passengers – can you tell us about the key changes?
There are three key pillars of safety: pre-cruise, onboard and ashore. Firstly, every guest must be fully vaccinated, with a vaccine recognised by the World Health Organisation, which includes Sinopharm, AstraZeneca/Oxford, Moderna, Pfizer/BionTech and Johnson and Johnson a minimum of 14 days prior to the cruise. Pre-cruise, we also require guests take a rapid antigen just prior to boarding.
If a guest tests positive at the port, we have agreements in place for our partners to look after them, taking them to a Covid-nominated hotel or care facility, and arranging travel at the end of the quarantine period.
Onboard, if a guest is feeling ill, we urge them to have a test at the Medical Centre. If that guest tests positive but they do not have the symptoms, there’ll be isolated in their state room until they can be disembarked in the relevant port. If they have the symptoms, they’ll be moved into an onboard isolation cabin and our doctors will take care of them until they can be safely disembarked and returned home. Medical costs should be covered by personal travel insurance, but if the safety protocols have been adhered to by the guest, we arrange and cover travel.
The last thing we want to do is leave a guest feeling lost or isolated
CT: What advice would you give to new cruise agents selling cruises to the GCC market?
NW: Firstly, I would urge agents to start looking at cruise ships like floating resorts. I see land-based resorts as our main competitors. Also, understand that not every cruise ship is the same.
For the Arabic community, I would recommend the Norwegian Jade and the Athens-to-Athens sailing, and the Norwegian Epic, because of all the shopping, both onboard and in ports of call, and the water park and kids’ club, catering to families. Guests can choose between two routes on Norwegian Epic – Barcelona-to-Barcelona, or Rome-to-Rome. It’s the same sailing, just with different embarkation points.
Ships are designed to suit every budget with different cabin categories. The Haven is our luxury ship-within-a ship complex, which has exclusive facilities for Haven guests, including a fine-dining restaurant. Studio cabins are designed for solo travellers and are proving particularly popular for multi-generational family travel, with single grandparents taking those.
The great thing about NCL is because we have the 17 ships and so many exotic itineraries, there really is something for everyone
One cruise that’s seeing huge demand in the GCC is Dubai to Cape Town, or Cape Town to Dubai. The cruise from Dubai this year departs 3 December to Cape Town, and the one on the way back from Cape Town to Dubai departs 26 January 2022. It’s an 18-night itinerary with some great ports, including Mauritius and the Seychelles.
For more information, visit www.ncl.com
All aboard Norwegian Epic