Some good news for the troubled cruise industry, Silversea Cruises Silver Spirit has arrived in the Saudi Port of Dhiba in the Gulf of Aqaba as the Kingdom prepares to launch Red Sea cruises for the first time on August 27.
The Silver Spirit has been chartered by Red Sea Cruises for two months and will target the local Saudi market, sailing three- and four-day itineraries as the Saudi Tourism Authority (STA) seeks to encourage domestic tourism in lieu of holidays abroad in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
The cruises are part of the STA’s Saudi Sumer campaign, which will also offer many other domestic tourism opportunities including diving, museums and hiking.
“Saudi Summer comes as a wonderful opportunity to discover multiple tourist destinations in KSA, alongside its historical, natural and cultural treasures. The campaign also contributes to enhancing efforts by the Ministry of Tourism to revive the tourism sector, which was most affected by the repercussions of the Covid-19 crisis,” said Ahmed Al Khateeb, the Saudi minister of tourism.
According to the Go Saudi website, run by the STA, the highlight of the Red Sea cruises is being able “to explore some of the Red Sea’s restricted areas, otherwise closed to the public.”
These include protected islands around Neom, where Saudi Arabia is planning an ambitious $500 billion futuristic mega-city. Go Saudi recommends visits to the Sindalah Marine Sanctuary and to the Georgios G shipwreck – a cargo ship that ran aground in 1978 and is sometimes referred to as the Saudi Titanic; and of course, the Red Sea with its rich marine life is one of the world’s top destinations for diving and snorkeling.
Silver Spirit a sign of Saudi Arabia opening up to foreign tourism
While the Saudi Tourism Authority is looking to boost domestic tourism, the move clearly is also with one eye on the foreign tourism market, which the kingdom is looking to develop as it seeks to diversify from a fossil fuel-based economy.
As part of its Vision 2030 blueprint to wean itself off oil revenue, the kingdom announced plans a few years ago to develop a large stretch of its Red Sea coastline for foreign tourism.
The kingdom currently has some 18 million tourists a year – prior to the coronavirus pandemic – but they are almost entirely religious pilgrims travelling to the Muslim holy city of Mecca.
A report last year said Saudi Arabia expects to increase international and domestic visits to 100 million a year by 2030, creating around a million jobs, with tourism contributing as much as 10% of the kingdom’s GDP, compared to just 3% today.
As part of its efforts, Saudi Arabia has eased visa requirements for citizens from some 50 countries and it is believed that the area will function as a semi-autonomous zone that will not be subject to the strict religious dress codes in place in the rest of the country.
The chief executive of the Red Sea project told the New York Times that alcohol aside “what you typically see in the West” is likely to be permitted at Red Sea resorts. The NYT interpreted this as “alcohol aside, travelers will be able to do as they please — for example, women will be able to sunbathe in bikinis.”
Other industry sources told the NYT that they expected alcohol to eventually be permitted in the autonomous zone.
Saudi Arabia seeks to become cruise destination
A report in Cruise Arabia tied the recent purchase of a 10% stake in Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest cruise company, to its desire to become a cruise destination.
Another report in the blog, noted that the cruise industry has been calling on Saudi Arabia for several years to open its ports to cruise ships.
It quoted Mohamed Saeed, General Manager, Middle East, Royal Caribbean as saying: “At the moment, cruise ships in the Red Sea make only one port of call, in the Jordanian coastal city of Aqaba. There’s just that one stop in Jordan after you pass the Suez Canal, then ships move on … Dubai and Abu Dhabi did their part …. Oman is starting this initiative and Bahrain is working on it, but we need to see that [from Saudi Arabia].”
The Silver Spirit made its maiden voyage in 2009 and was last refurbished in 2018. The 691 foot vessel has one of the highest space-to-guest ratios in the cruise industry, providing 6400 cubic feet of space per guest. With a maximum of 608 passengers at double occupancy, and 421 crew, the Silver Spirit has around one crew member for every 1.4 guests.
Rates for all-inclusive packages for three-day cruises start from 7,300 Saudi Arabian Riyals ($2,000) per person,while four-day cruises start at 10,300 SAR per person ($2750).