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Muscat Port set for Oman’s biggest cruise passenger turnaround

Muscat, NOV 17 - Around 900 British tourists are due to fly into Muscat International Airport by chartered flights later this month before they board a luxury passenger cruise liner at the start of a voyage from Mina Sultan Qaboos (Muscat). On the same day, a similar number of UK cruise passengers will fly out from Muscat aboard chartered flights to Britain at the end of their cruise. This ‘passenger turnaround’, scheduled to take place on November 29, 2018, is set to be biggest of its kind in the history of Oman’s rapidly expanding cruise tourism industry — a milestone that also bodes well for Muscat Port’s development into a homeport for international cruise liners, according to a key industry executive.

“This is the second passenger turnaround we have handled in as many months, which underscores Muscat Port’s potential as a homeport for international cruise liners,” said M C Jose (pictured), CEO — Khimji Ramdas Projects and Logistics, the biggest shipping agency for cruise ships calling Omani waters.

The first major passenger turnaround of the current cruise tourism season took place on October 23, 2018 when 388 tourists disembarked from the MV Silver Muse at Port Sultan Qaboos. Boarding in their place were 397 new passengers who flew into the city by chartered flights ahead of the start of a new voyage from Muscat.

This time around, Port Sultan Qaboos is gearing up to receive 900 cruise passengers arriving by air on November 29 at the start of a luxury cruise on board MV Marella Discovery. They will be flying aboard three chartered Boeing Dreamliner jets from Gatwick, Manchester and Birmingham. The same airplanes will return to their original destinations with 900 British tourists at the end of their cruise in Muscat in a turnaround exercise that is expected to become more frequent going forward, according to Jose.

New homeport

“Our focus now is to market Muscat as a homeport and attract more opportunities for passenger exchanges through Port Sultan Qaboos,” the veteran shipping and logistics executive told the Observer. “The new airport with its superior capability and international connectivity, coupled with the strong growth in hotel room availability, makes for a compelling argument in support of this marketing strategy.”

The homeport concept, says Jose, will add value to the local economy as passengers will spend more time in Muscat either before embarking the ship or after disembarkation. A decent number of high-end tourists will create a floating population which will boost all sectors of the economy, he said, while stressing the need for a modern cruise terminal to underpin the homeport advantage.

Also auguring well for the positioning of Port Sultan Qaboos as a homeport is the appointment of Marafi — a group company of Oman’s logistics flagship ASYAD — as the new port operator.

“Marafi is extending all possible assistance in support of cruise ship calls to Muscat. With cruise liner sizes growing internationally, we must seriously look at beefing up the port’s ability to accommodate at least three large ships at any one time — something that all stakeholders concerned should take on board when finalizing the future plan for Mina Sultan Qaboos.”

Khimji Ramdas Shipping, which handles the lion’s share of all cruise liners visiting Omani ports, has lined up an unprecedented 145 cruise calls during the 2018-19 cruise tourism season, representing around 56 per cent of total cruise traffic to the Sultanate. This represents a remarkable 34 per cent increase over port calls registered during the previous season.

“As the largest player in Oman’s shipping and logistics sector, we have a total of 86 cruise ships scheduled to visit Port Sultan Qaboos this season, which begins in October and ends in April the following year. In addition, there are 32 scheduled calls at Salalah, and 27 at Khasab. In total, we expect to handle around 240,000 passengers during this season,” Jose explained.

Maiden visits

A number of cruise ships are scheduled to call Oman for the first time during the current season. The list includes MV AIDAprima, MV Costa Venezia, MV AIDAvita and MV Seabourn Ovation — all luxury liners making their debut during 2018-19.

The executive also lauded efforts by various tourism industry stakeholders in supporting the growth of cruise tourism in the Sultanate, as well as ensuring that passenger turnarounds are seamless and hassle-free.

“The Ministry of Tourism has been working with all of the parties concerned, notably ROP Customs, ROP Passport and Residence, Oman Airports, Oman Air SATS, Marafi, Travco and Khimji Ramdas Shipping, in making sure we are all on the same page in the achievement of this objective. The stakeholders are brought together on one platform to discuss how efficiently we can complete the exchanges smoothly and speedily. The baggage, for example, is transported on a bonded truck to and from the air cargo terminal to the port to reduce handling time. Special counters are also set up to handle the embarking and disembarking passengers. Since the turnaround time for the aircrafts is limited, we jointly decided on a procedure for the seamless movement of passengers and baggage.

Each and every stakeholder has extended its wholehearted support in making the upcoming turnaround a success.”

Smooth passenger exchanges, says Jose, are imperative if cruise liners and operators are to endorse Muscat as a hub for passenger turnarounds and homeporting operations.

“MV Marella Discovery is scheduled for yet another turnaround operation on April 18, 2019. This is going to be an acid-test for passenger exchanges through Muscat. Our performance on this ship will have an impact on our marketing efforts for future passenger exchanges through Muscat,” he added. Passenger turnarounds are currently dominated by ports in the neighbouring region — a promising market opportunity that Muscat is looking to make inroads into as well.

Conrad Prabhu

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