Changes made to experiences and services aboard MSC Bellissima include female-only swimming pools, all-female dance classes and other events, as well as events and activities tailored to the local market.
The changes have been enthusiastically embraced by Saudi Arabian passengers, especially women, many of whom are travelling outside Saudi Arabia for the first time without a male relative accompanying them.
“Most of our guests are Saudis or residents in Saudi Arabia… So we have adapted our product from a 100% European offer to a mix with Saudi and Gulf style,” said Mohammed Abdulfattah, events manager aboardMSC Bellisima.
Saudi Arabia ended its long-running ‘guardian’ system in 2019, which had until then required any Saudi Arabian women to have a male relative in attendance when travelling aboard.
Women in Saudi Arabia still need a male relative’s permission for various decisions, including marriage and divorce, but cruising and travel in general is no longer one of them.
Dalal Mohammed, who booked a cruise aboard MSC Bellissima with her sister said she appreciated the privacy provided by MSC Cruises with the changes to its onboard cruise experience.
“Although we are [on a cruise ship], 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 told Reuters.
Majed Sait and his wife who spent their honeymoon on a cruise aboard MSC Bellissima said the experience offered something completely new to the Saudi Arabian travel sector.
“This is a three-day trip but it has been very relaxing for us and a completely different experience,” he said.
MSC Bellissima can accommodate 4,500 guests across 15 passenger decks, with 12 restaurants, 20 bars and cafes, four swimming pools, 9 Jacuzzis, a games arcade, F1 Simulator and a huge shopping, entertainment and dining promenade called The Galleria.
The Galleria, styled like a Mediterranean village, houses bars, specialty restaurants and shops, and is covered by a 5,167 sqft (480 sqm) LED dome ceiling called “digital sky”.
The ship is spending the Middle Eastern summer and winter sailing roundtrip from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to several destinations on the Red Sea, including Safaga in Egypt (for Luxor), Aqaba in Jordan (for Petra) and Saudi Arabian ports that are home to pristine beaches, ancient towns and World Heritage Sites.
Foreign tourism inside Saudi Arabia was restricted and opportunities for domestic holidaymakers were limited until the country in 2016 began to diversify its economy in earnest, enacting key reforms such as tourist visas, and launching a series of tourism projects, including along the Red Sea coast.
The government has said it wants the tourism sector to contribute 10 percent to gross domestic product by 2030 and the cruise sector will be a major part of that. A cruise terminal has already been built in Jeddah, with more planned for additional Saudi ports.