Majed Sait and his wife are spending their honeymoon on a cruise in the turquoise waters off Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast, a voyage that is still a novelty in the conservative kingdom which only recently began to allow cruise ships to dock in its ports.
Foreign tourism inside Saudi Arabia was restricted and opportunities for domestic holidaymakers were limited until Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman began a drive in 2016 to bring social change and diversify the economy away from its dependence on oil.
Since then, Saudi Arabia has introduced tourist visas for foreign visitors and launched a series of tourism projects, including along the Red Sea coast, and the government has said it wants the sector to contribute 10 percent to gross domestic product by 2030.
Jeddah port launched its cruise ship terminal in July.
“This is a three-day trip but it has been very relaxing for us and a completely different experience,” said Sait as he and his wife took in the breeze on the main deck of the MSC Bellissima, a cruise ship which can accommodate 2,500 guests across 19 floors.
Saudi Arabia rented the MSC Bellissima from its Geneva-based operator MSC Cruises as part of its Saudi Summer campaign designed to encourage tourism from home and abroad. The onboard entertainment, which includes dance shows, concerts and stand up comedians, has been amended to cater for Saudi tourists.
“Most of our guests are Saudis or residents in Saudi Arabia… So we have adapted our product from a 100 per cent European offer to a mix with Saudi and Gulf style,” said Mohammed Abdulfattah, events manager at MSC Bellisima.
The cruise is also an opportunity for Dalal Mohammed, who booked the trip with her sister, to enjoy some of the new freedoms which came with the crown prince’s steps to dismantle the heavily criticised guardianship system.
Women in Saudi Arabia still need a “guardian” – a male relative whose approval they require for various decisions, including marriage and divorce, but they are now free to travel on their own.
Five years ago it would have been unthinkable for her to go on a trip with only her sister and no male guardian, Mohammed said.
“Although we are travelling in the sea… We still have privacy and we appreciated, that today, we swam in a swimming pool reserved for women, and we took dance lessons for girls only,” she said.