Redesigning a uniquely Arabian adventure

Jon Ingleton speaks to Alan Stewart about how SMC Design have led a giant ship transformation project to launch Aroya Cruises

Redesigning a uniquely Arabian adventure

SMC Design/Aroya Cruises

The Al Waha restaurant is intended as a contemporary interpretation of Saudi architecture

By Alex Smith |

Aroya Cruises is teasing future passengers with the prospect of the ‘Khuzama Experience’ onboard its first ship Aroya, which it defines as “a touch of luxury” that “speaks to the Arabian identity and its unique features.” Delivering on this ambitious promise with a ship that was built for an entirely different market is a giant undertaking.  

“We’ve been involved in this project for over a year now and we’ve got a huge team working on it,” says Alan Stewart, director of SMC Design. “We spent two weeks on the ship in Singapore to scope the job and it quickly became apparent that this was no small refit job, with the intended redesign covering all guest-facing public areas. This led to some concept work with Aroya Cruises to develop the general arrangement, guest experience and facilities, and from that we got the okay to proceed.” 

At 151,000gt, 335 metres in length and carrying 3,364 passengers in 1,678 cabins, the project required a first-class team. Columbia Blue has been appointed as the ship manager while SMC Design are the leading architects responsible for the design throughout the vessel, designing most of the public and accommodation areas. They also worked with Partner Ship Design for the spa and several of the premium public spaces, and with Heineman and Brand Creative for the onboard retail venues. 

“Columbia Blue will be running the hotel operations, as well as the technical management, and so they’re looking after the food concepts, menus, procurement and some of the owner’s supply for the F&B venues,” says Stewart. “We are also working with some of the best outfitters in our industry." MJM Marine are responsible for outfitting about 75 per cent of the ship, including the public spaces up to deck eight and all of the main accommodation decks, with some of their work sub-contracted to Trimline. De Wave Group, meanwhile, are working on public spaces from deck 16 upwards, taking responsibility for areas including the Royal Suite and Super Suites. 

Aroya Cafe

SMC Design/Aroya Cruises

The Marka Cafe has been embellished with traditional Saudi arts and crafts

“We take great pride in leading design projects – coordinating the different design teams, overseeing the work, managing the transitions between spaces and managing client meetings,” says Stewart. “SMC Design have had a team of about 40 people working on this job who have designed about 80 per cent of the interiors.” 

He continues: “It helped that we have all of the original Genting Dream drawings on file because we designed the ship when it was first built. With such a quick turnaround to redesign the entire ship within a six-month period, having access to all the original drawings has helped us hit our design deadlines. This has been important because we think this is perhaps the biggest cruise ship refit ever to be undertaken by a cruise operator!” 

Aroya Cruises is the first Arabic cruise company and Aroya will be the first ship designed for the Arabic market. As a result, the refit has required SMC to develop a distinctive design approach, several new-to-cruise venues and a totally unique design identity. 

“There’s a lot of expectation for the design and hopefully we’ve done it justice,” says Stewart. “We’ve learned a lot during this process – about Arabian culture, architecture, patterns and artwork. Our design goal was to find a way to translate the environmental elements and cultural heritage into the design – seeking inspiration from the sun, sea, sand and flora alongside the patterns, textures and geometry that are truly synonymous with the country.” 

The interiors of Aroya needed to deliver an authentic representation of the country, so the depth of research and attention to detail has been intensive.  

“The landscape of Saudi Arabia is a lot more diverse than you might think,” says Stewart. “From the coast to the mountains, through deserts and shrublands to lava fields and highlands, there is inspiration everywhere.”  

Cultural elements provided similarly rich inspiration, not only driving art and design choices but also shaping the onboard experience as well.  

“The onboard spaces have to align tightly with Saudi Arabian culture, informing restaurant decisions, coffee bars and lounge facilities, entertainment venues and cabin facilities,” explains Stewart. 

There are countless industry firsts associated with Aroya. One in particular required SMC to make a new class query to make a reality. 

“Shisha is a feature of Saudi culture, but the pipe uses a hot coal,” says Stewart. “We were pleased to be able to find a way to get class approval because it’s such a popular cultural pastime.” 

SMC Design curated the onboard art collection, staying local as much as possible to align with the brand ambitions.  

“We are fortunate to have some Arabic speaking staff on our team and we benefited from good local support, including, for example, an art consultant who helped connect us with local artists,” says Stewart. “We’ve used as many Saudi artists as possible, amounting to over 60 per cent of the works selected. There’s a lot of emphasis on pattern, texture and shape in Arabic art that we’ve been able to carry through into the interior architecture.” 

“We’ve also been responsible for the exterior works and livery, which is a geometric interpretation of the shimmering sea, as well as all of the graphics and signage throughout the ship,” he adds. “They required a total makeover because the majority of the signage was in Chinese and designed for a Chinese market. It all had to be revised to Arabic.” 

The exterior changes are subtle: glazing alterations, adjustments to the Royal Suite and reworking of some of the deck activities to take account of the weather.  

“Because it’s so hot in the Red Sea we decided to move an outside buffet indoors so it could benefit from air-conditioning” says Stewart. “Every design decision is mindful of the guest experience.” 

Aroya Cafe

SMC Design/Aroya Cruises

Alan Stewart, director of SMC Design

Stepping outside its comfort zone to embrace the design heritage of Saudi Arabia has been a test for SMC, and Stewart is grateful to its partners for their help along the way. 

“Designing for a different culture can be challenging but we’ve had incredible support from Cruise Saudi, the Public Investment Fund and the Ministry of Culture,” he says. “As the first cruise ship for this nation it’s really important that we get it right.” 

This article was first published in the 2024 issue of  Cruise & Ferry Interiors. All information was correct at the time of printing, but may since have changed. Subscribe  for FREE to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.  

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