Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 is resetting priorities in preparation for a time after oil. The formation of Cruise Saudi at the beginning of 2021 may well be remembered in the cruise industry as the milestone that triggered the awakening of this future tourism giant.
During my trip with Cruise Saudi, a storied tour around Al Balad, old Jeddah, provided the perfect introduction to Saudi Arabia. Many of the houses were built with old coral that was mined along the shore of the Red Sea. Architectural influences reveal Al Balad’s pilgrim and trade route heritage. Nasseef House on Suq al-Alawi is perhaps the most striking. Built in 1881 for a wealthy merchant, the house is now a cultural centre and museum.
Founded in the seventh century, Al Balad became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2014 and restoration work continues as the country seeks to protect its cultural and architectural history.
The clear blue water and golden sand of the uninhabited Jabal Al Lith archipelago offered a very natural call, especially for ships that are well stocked with water sports equipment. The submarine onboard Scenic Eclipse was well used here, likewise the kayaks, paddleboards and underwater scooters.
Rare sightings of protected fauna will appeal to many passengers here. Boobies, dugongs (the other type of sea cow) and manta rays are regular visitors. However, the empty nests of recently departed turtles suggests that cruise guests may not be granted access to these island beaches between August and October.
Once home to Lawrence of Arabia, Yanbu offered an authentic immersion into living here in both the past and the present. Local residents of ‘The pearl of the Red Sea’ welcomed us with floral tributes, sweets and music before we headed off through an indoor market and on to the mayor’s coffee shop for refreshments and a history lesson from the former teacher.
A five-year plan to restore Yanbu has progressed at an impressive pace since it was started in 2020. Works include opening the only walking route from the port to the city centre in the Kingdom, a feature that will make it a popular call for cruise lines operating in the Red Sea.
Abandoned in the 1980s, Al Ula old town was on the pilgrims’ itinerary in the 13th century. Its recent revival as a tourist destination will protect the 900-odd buildings and five mosques for future generations.
This will be a day tour for cruise passengers as it requires a one-hour flight from Yanbu to Al Ula. This inconvenience is rewarded by a visit to Hegra, an ancient Nabataean burial site comprising 110 tombs carved into rocky outcrops. Over 2,000 years later and 12 miles away, Maraya opened and provided a contrastingly contemporary architectural marvel to captivate tourists. Designed by Giò Forma, Maraya is the world’s largest mirror-clad building and appears invisible at certain angles.
Back in Jeddah, our last night was celebrated with a desert experience. Arabian horse and camel rides, buggy races across the dunes and traditional music provided the entertainment, which was followed by a lavish buffet dinner under the stars. This was a prototype event that still requires some polish, but the concept has the potential to become a truly memorable conclusion to a Red Sea cruise.
While Scenic Luxury Cruises and Tours delivered a flawless experience onboard the new Scenic Eclipse, on land there were minor shortcomings – yet nothing that will derail the nation’s vision. The guides were wholly charming but unsurprisingly inexperienced – notably they haven’t yet grasped how needy cruise passengers can be! Our appetite for information and anecdotes wasn’t entirely sated and we were occasionally left with no direction. However, these are minor teething issues that will be solved in a flash.
The residents of the places we visited were welcoming, engaging and curious. In the regenerated old town of Yanbu the locals took as many photographs of the tourists as the tourists took of the location. It was perhaps here that it was most apparent that Saudi Arabia is changing and will surely evolve into a very desirable cruise destination.
This article was first published in the 2022 issue of Cruise & Ferry Itinerary Planning. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed.
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