Exotic Middle East and North Africa Back On Cruise Menus

May 12, 2005

North Africa's Tripoli and Tunisia's La Goulette, and the Middle East's Dubai, Muscat, Aqaba and Beirut, are among ports of call that have returned to cruise line menus as the industry -- mostly in the form of luxury lines -- begins to re-explore ultra-exotic destinations that have been off limits since the events of September 11. Other ports now available to North American-based cruise travelers include Safaga/Luxor (Egypt), Tartous (Syria), Salalah (Oman), Alexandria/Cairo (Egypt), Sharm el Sheikh/Sinai (Egypt), Bahrain, Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) and Tobruk (Libya). Another popular addition to some itineraries is a transit through the Suez Canal.

In many cases, these destinations, offered on this year's world cruises, already have been a tremendous success. But cruise lines such as Oceania Cruises, Crystal, Radisson Seven Seas, Seabourn and Silversea are also adding itineraries to fall and winter schedules. Cruise line executives tell us that sensitivities in this most sensitive of world's regions could of course result in itinerary alterations.

One oddity for North American-based lines can be the extreme length of voyages -- not to mention a truly weird choreography of port days vs. sea days. A 16-night "Red Sea & Africa" cruise on Seabourn Spirit, for instance, calls at just five ports (with overnights in two), which means a whopping nine days are spent at sea. That's, by the way, nine straight days at sea. Less extreme examples (but still pretty wacky): A 14-night Silversea Suez Canal trip between Egypt's Port Said and Dubai features four straight days on the high seas -- and five days out of the 12 night portion of Oceania Nautica's 24-day Athens-to-Singapore maiden voyage are spent ringing Arabia.

The obvious explanation? Cruise lines must incorporate the extra days as they bypass riskier ports of call in the region.

This is all old hat for one cruise line: German-based Hapag Lloyd, which recently started marketing select ships and voyages to North American-oriented travelers. The company, which operates Europa, rated by critics as one of the world's top luxury cruise ships, and a handful of other vessels, is a more-than-special-occasion fixture in the Middle East and, indeed, travels to places -- such as Yemen -- where North American vessels don't dare to go (it should be noted that the U.S. State Department has issued a stern "don't go" warning regarding American travel to Yemen).

Other countries with potentially fascinating ports of call that probably won't wind up on any cruise line's itineraries any time soon include Iran, Iraq and Pakistan, to name a few obvious choices.