For many westerners, Saudi Arabia is a deeply misunderstood country, and as it opens up to the global tourism market, particularly with its nascent cruise industry, it’s important to keep a few things in mind when booking a cruise to the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia concluded its first ever full cruise season with a major international cruise line earlier this year in April. MSC Cruises homeported its Meraviglia-class MSC Bellissima in Jeddah throughout the November to March winter cruise season, and then extended her season due to unexpectedly high demand.
While MSC Cruises is the first line to homeport in Saudi Arabia, sailing roundtrip to various Saudi and Egyptian destinations in the Red Sea, it is unlikely to be alone for long. The country has ambitious plans to expand the sector in the coming years, and there is rampant development of cruise infrastructure taking place.
Already several cruise ships have made maiden calls to Jeddah and other Saudi Arabian cruise ports, and many more cruise lines have indicated they will be calling in Saudi Arabia in the near future.
The Saudi Arabian cruise circuit is in its early stages, though, and the kingdom itself is a newcomer to the global tourism scene, so here are ten things to keep in mind when cruising to or from Saudi Arabia.
Alcohol is served – but only at sea
Unlike other cruise ports in the Middle East, such as Dubai or Abu Dhabi in the UAE, alcohol is not served aboard the ship until she is in international waters. Saudi Arabia remains a ‘dry’ country, in which bars and nightclubs are not licensed to serve alcoholic beverages.
The casino is open – also only at sea
Just like alcohol, gambling is not allowed in Saudi Arabia either, and so the onboard casino is closed when the ship is not in international waters. It typically opens within an hour or so of leaving port, so fear not, you’ll be able to easily take your chanced with lady luck.
Women are welcome – there are even female tour guides
Until recently, women were not allowed to travel to Saudi Arabia without a male chaperone (either a male relative or a husband), but that’s all changed now. Saudi Arabian women are allowed to drive and travel freely throughout the country, and the same applies to female tourists from abroad. MSC Cruises even offers female-led tour excursions and female-only tour groupings in respect of local customs.
Many passengers are Saudi Arabian – and cruise lines attempt to cater to them
MSC Cruises has reported that up to half of all its passengers aboard MSC Bellissima during her maiden cruise season out of Saudi Arabia were residents of the country, so there is a large contingent of local passengers aboard.
MSC Cruises made an effort to cater to their tastes and preferences with locally inspired cuisine in the main restaurant and designated one of the pool onboard as female-only. There were also female-only entertainment experiences and activities during the cruise season, such as yoga, dance classes and other events. These options can be a good alternative for Western women looking for greater privacy.
Know the law – but only when you’re ashore
In Saudi Arabia, as with many of the countries on the Arabian Peninsula (UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar), public displays of affection are not allowed. That includes a simple kiss, so passengers are advised to be aware of, and respectful to, local law when ashore.
The same goes for dress codes, passengers should dress modestly, covering the arms and legs as much as possible. In Saudi Arabia, same-sex couples are also advised to be discreet when ashore. However, aboard the ship, even when in port, none of these restrictions apply.
Book your cruise for the winter – summer temperatures reach 50′ Celsius
MSC Cruises homeported in Jeddah through the Middle East winter (November to March), and into only part of the summer, while most cruise lines with scheduled calls in Saudi Arabia will also be calling in winter.
The winter months are the best time of year to see the country, when temperatures range from 14′ C to 23′ C. In summer, the heat can become unbearable, regularly exceeding 45’C and even touching 50, making many of the shore excursion options unfeasible as they’re outdoors.
It’s a new market – so there are some kinks to be ironed out
Saudi is unlike any other country in the Middle East, it has been closed to all but religious tourists and business travellers since 2004, and is only just beginning to open up to leisure tourism as part of the Vision 2030 program. The cruise terminal in Jeddah is a converted ferry terminal, but there are plans to build a new one, as well as cruise terminals in all Saudi Arabia’s primary cruise ports.
The ports are also located quite far outside the city center, unlike the cruise ports in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which are just a few minutes from the heart of the city. From Jeddah, King Abdullah Economic City and Yanbu, there aren’t great public transport options, so you’re best off booking a guided short excursion.
Saudi Arabia is big – and each port has a different feel
Each port in Saudi Arabia has its own unique attraction and feel, contrary to many perceptions that see Saudi Arabia as one big desert country.
Yanbu in the north is a gateway to Al’ Ula, possibly Saudi Arabia’s most iconic tourist attraction. The area was closed off even to locals for many years due to local superstitions and is home to an ancient walled city from the 6th century BC in a quintessential desert oasis with fertile soils, groves of date palms and a stable water supply. The archaeological site of Hegra (also called Mada’in Saleh) is nearby with over 110 precision-carved burial tombs of the Nabatean civilisation perfectly preserved in the sandstone outcrops.
Jeddah, the primary embarkation port, is home to the Al-Balad district, a UNESCO heritage site of maze-like streets and centuries-old coral stone buildings. The bustling area of traditional latticed-windowed houses is a residential and retail hub with plenty of cafes, restaurants and unique shopping opportunities.
King Abdullah Economic City is a modern port to the north of Jeddah that was developed specifically for tourism, with plenty of beaches, golf courses and a recently developed Lagoona leisure area complete with shops, cafes and restaurants.
Some attractions are inland – so prepare for an hour or so on a bus
Many of Saudi Arabia’s best gems are located far in-land, so be prepared to spend a few hours travelling by bus. From King Abdullah Economic City, for example, you can do the Meddinah tour, encompassing Ohid and The Prophet’s Mosque, as well as a private museum with scale models and items from Mecca, but its a 4 hour bus ride each way.
Similarly, Al’ Ula is a few hours by bus (or a one-hour chartered flight) from Yanbu, while from Jeddah there is a full day excursion to Hegra by plane.
Meet the locals – Saudis are very hospitable and friendly
Last but not least, meet Saudi Arabia fellow passengers and locals ashore. Saudi Arabia is new to the international tourism scene, but has a long history of hospitality going back to antiquity. While its a new tourism destination, it’s been a pilgrimage destination for thousands of years.