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Normally just the unlovely places where passengers step on and off en route to somewhere more picturesque, cruise ports aren’t usually known as destinations in their own rights.
But in Qatar, a regular port of call on Arabian Sea itineraries, there’s a reason to stop and stare.
Doha’s Grand Cruise Terminal opened in November 2022, welcoming the MSC Europa – the largest ever ship operated by MSC Cruises, with a guest capacity of 6,774 passengers.
The terminal – which cost half a billion dollars to build – swiftly became a reverse tourist attraction, with local residents streaming to see it. Located at the end of a two-mile causeway stretching into the semicircular Doha Bay, and easily visible from the Corniche – Doha’s 4.5-mile long waterfront promenade – it was an attractive addition to the skyline.
The relative distance from the city center works for everyone – starting with residents, who aren’t overwhelmed by views of the huge ships. Passengers, meanwhile, get a panorama of Doha, with its mix of modern and traditional architecture hemming the bay – and a swift, easy, and picturesque walk into town.
Before the terminal opened, cruise ships docked at Hamad Port, some 25 miles south of Doha. Despite the port being open to comparatively large cargo vessels, cruise ships were limited to a certain size. The MSC Splendida, carrying 3,900 passengers, was the largest ship to dock at Hamad, in 2017. The new port is not only more convenient for passengers, but also able to handle the largest megaships.
Old meets new
The new terminal stands at the end of the pathway connecting the Corniche to the cruise port: a sand-colored, two-story building, hidden from view by Doha’s Mina District. The façade, designed by architects Hassell Studio, is made up of 1,154 arches – a nod to traditional Arabian buildings.
It was designed to be functional yet appealing, allowing enough space to accommodate two ships, each with a capacity of 6,000 passengers.
“This is a civic project that has to respond to many complex needs and requirements at once, but still has an outward role to face the world and welcome people into a place that is really just emerging as a destination,” says Ashley Munday, Hassell’s principal and head of design.
“This approach is integral to creating a place that is a well-loved part of the city, embedded in the cultural fabric of Doha, rather than a single-use architectural statement.”
Into the blue
Inside, the building is split into two separate terminals, linked by a vast aquarium. Passengers descend to passport control through a walkway that cuts right through the tanks, where a colorful sample of regional marine life welcomes them to Doha.
“I was mesmerized by the aquarium – it made the terminal have a tranquil quality [with water] on both sides of the escalators,” says Leisa Chell, PR & communications manager for MSC Cruises (Australia).
As visas are granted before each ship docks, with all passport details confirmed prior to arrival, the process is fluid and fast. Nearly too fast, as senior editor of Cruise Critic Aaron Saunders found when he arrived in March.
“It was more than surprising,” he says. “It’s well organized, well laid out, and has a team of gracious staff who complete check-in easily and efficiently. If there’s a fault, it’s that I was in and out of it so quickly that I barely had time to register how nice the facility was.”
Straight to the city
Unlike in many other cruise destinations, Doha’s new cruise terminal isn’t isolated from the rest of the city, but offers a destination in itself, extending what’s on offer in the city center. Next to the terminal lies the Mina District, a pastel-colored assortment of cafes, restaurants, and boutiques, all reminiscent of Greece. There’s even a fish market and attached restaurant, serving the catch of the day.
Nearby is the Box Park, a marina dotted with reused shipping containers adorned with street art, as well as street food stands. A further 20 minutes’ walk toward the city center, the Flag Plaza, filled with world flags flapping in the breeze, marks the access to the Corniche. From here, Doha’s best sights are within easy walking distance.
Saunders, who has cruised on every continent, says that the area makes “a hugely positive impression” compared to ports in other countries.
“A lot of cruise terminals in North America are in uninviting locations – industrial harbors or areas that are otherwise closed off to the public. I love that Doha’s terminal is situated in one of the city’s most picturesque places,” he says.
“It’s a great area to spend time in, even if you have no intention of embarking on a cruise.”
Qatar has used the attention it received from the FIFA World Cup 2022 as a springboard to propel its tourism ambitions forward. Akbar al-Baker, the then Qatar Tourism Chairman, said in a June interview with local media that Qatar’s national tourism strategy was aiming to welcome more than six million annual visitors by 2030, destinations-in-the-region and statistics up to August 2023 show a promising 2.66 million visitors so far this year. Cruising plays a huge role in achieving the lofty goal of more than doubling that figure over the next six years.
According to data provided by Qatar Tourism Authority, the country saw 54 port calls and 253,191 cruise visitors during its 2022/23 season (cruise season in the Middle East runs from October to April). That’s an increase of 152% compared to the previous season’s 100,500 visitors and 34 port calls.
For the 2023/24 season, some 120 cruise ships, from lines including MSC, Costa, and Silversea, are expected to dock in Doha, according to Craig Upshall, a cruise specialist for Qatar Tourism marketing wing.
“Cruise tourism is an important pillar through which Qatar will fulfil its national tourism strategy to become the fastest growing tourism destination in the region by 2030,” he says.
“The industry is experiencing continuous expansion, sustained by strategic collaborations with both public and private entities. Qatar Tourism aims to establish the country as a pivotal hub for transit calls, positioning Doha as a premier cruise destination within the Gulf Region.”
Qatar might still be an emerging tourist destination, but the country has already convinced Leisa Chell, whose visit last year, as part of a Middle East cruise was her first to the region. It has, she says, “a quietness that is not seen in larger GCC countries.”
“Doha has the best of both worlds – most people speak English and there is every convenience you could wish for. But it still retains the souk, where you can experience the traditional marketplace.” Her favorite experience? “A visit to the falcon hospital.”
The new cruise terminal sums up Doha – and Qatar as a whole – to perfection. The juxtaposition of modern efficiency and ease, alongside a deep sense of tradition and culture, makes it an alluring draw for cruise passengers, who want to enjoy a bit of 1001 Arabian Nights – but in 21st-century style.
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