Will Saudi Arabia be the next Cuba of cruising?
It is not often that a destination previously off-limits to Americans open its doors to tourism. The last example was Cuba, when the Obama administration relaxed 50-year-old travel restrictions that enabled cruising to the island to resume — to much fanfare and demand. Those sailings would only operate for a few years before the Trump administration shut them down.
The latest new-cruise-destination buzz surrounds Saudi Arabia, which in 2019 made sweeping changes to decades-old rules about who could enter the Kingdom and which had for many years barred most American tourists.
Saudi has opened itself to leisure travelers as part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious Vision 2030 plan to diversify the nation’s oil-dominated economy. It introduced a tourist visa for travelers from dozens of countries, including the U.S. and most of Europe, and it relaxed what had been very strict rules for women, such as not having to have a male chaperone to enter the country.
The kingdom also established Cruise Saudi, a publicly funded effort to develop ports, destinations and excursion options to attract more ships to its ports in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf.
That effort is already bearing fruit. MSC Cruises this week said that one of its newest ships, the MSC Bellisima, this month will homeport in Jeddah, adding to its earlier plan to base the MSC Magnifica in Jeddah, where it will offer seven-day, Red Sea cruises through March. A third ship, the MSC Virtuosa, will make weekly calls at Saudi Arabia’s Arabian Gulf port of Dammam from December through March during Middle East cruises to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar.
Scenic Cruises also said last week that its luxury expedition vessel, the Scenic Eclipse, would homeport in Jeddah this month, launching a series of Red Sea itineraries from July 17 to December 9. Glen Moroney, chairman of the Scenic Group, said that “Saudi Arabia will be one of the hottest tourist destinations in coming years We are confident that this new season will mark the start of a long relationship with the destination and hope to be able to offer more sailings in the region in the coming seasons as the world starts to open up for international travel.”
Shaun Ebelthite, the editor of Cruise Arabia Online, which calls itself the only blog about Middle Eastern and Africa cruising, said the addition of Saudi Arabia eliminates a key challenge for the Middle East as a cruise destination, which he said has always been a lack of ports on the Red Sea leg between Suez and Oman.
“This means that cruise ships bound for Dubai spend a full week to ten days at sea, which makes the repositioning itinerary unappealing for most passengers,” Ebelthite said. “Having Saudi Arabian ports available to call in will not only add more destinations and variety but will likely create demand for cruises through the Red Sea, as Saudi Arabia is such an evocative destination for western tourists.”
Those concerns had been voiced by cruise executives at the 2017 Seatrade Middle East Cruise Conference. Ebelthite quoted Steven Young, then-vice president of port and shore operations for Carnival UK’s P&O Cruises and Cunard, saying that “Cruise itineraries between the Mediterranean and Arabian Gulf are port-lean, and the cruise destinations within the Gulf require greater diversity of shore excursion offerings to really make them stand out. The opening up of the Saudi cruise market would really help in this regard.”
Ebelthite predicts that more cruise lines and ships will follow MSC’s lead.
“They’ll probably wait to see how MSC gets on, but Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line and the grand voyage lines like Cunard, Princess, Azamara and so on are likely to feature Saudi ports calls and possibly even departures in the near future.”
He said that the important Saudi sites such as Al Ahsa Oasis in Dammam, the ancient coral Old Town in Al Balad and Yanbu, which features prominently in the movie “Lawrence of Arabia,” will “will fast become major tourist hotspots.”
Indeed, for American cruisers, it sounds like the next Cuba is within reach.
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