Florence Derrick boards ultra-luxury super yacht Scenic Eclipse for the first international cruise to Saudi Arabia in 17 years, and uncovers a destination where tourism is just beginning
It’s 2am when we land at Jeddah airport – and the outside temperature is 36C. Having left a windswept, autumnal Heathrow behind me, the wall of heat on arrival in Saudi Arabia is a shock. But by the following afternoon, settled on Scenic Eclipse, any thoughts of discomfort are as far away as London.
This ultra-luxury super yacht was designed for polar expeditions in the Antarctic circle, but has been brought to one of the hottest places on earth for a preview tour of Saudi Arabia – in anticipation of the destination being added to Scenic’s future sailings (starting with a Saudi offering from sister company, Emerald Cruises, in January 2022).
With space for just 228 passengers and an almost one-to-one guest-to-staff ratio, Scenic Eclipse offers unrivalled luxury. Each suite has its own butler, a living room area and a balcony, from which I look out for dolphins as we set sail from Jeddah – Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city, and home to a beautifully crumbling old town in the midst of renovation – into the Red Sea.
This voyage is special for more reasons than the elegance of the ship (and elegance is an understatement – there’s Chanel No 5 in the bathrooms). Saudi Arabia has been closed to international visitors for 17 years, but an ongoing project called Vision 2030 aims to transform the country into a tourism hub by the end of the decade. It’s part of a plan to diversify the Saudi economy and create jobs – up to a million in tourism and hospitality could be created by 2030, a quarter of which are predicted to be available to Saudis by 2022. Half of these have been promised to women, which is a notable sign of progress in a country that has aggressively restricted women’s lives in the past. Since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman became the country’s chief policymaker in 2017, women have won the right to drive, run businesses and travel unchaperoned.
The fledgling tourism push in Saudi Arabia is also remarkable because of the relatively unknown world-class sites there. While the cruise begins in the thriving port city of Jeddah, it quickly whisks us out to an idyllic desert island inhabited only by nesting turtles, where we stand-up paddleboard and swim in crystalline, bath-like water – before hopping into the ship’s own submarine for a close-up look at the coral. It’s one of the ship’s most impressive features, alongside its helicopters. “We’re the world’s first discovery ship to be equipped with two Airbus H130s, and the first cruise ship to be equipped with a cruise submarine,” says captain James Griffiths. “And what’s incredible is our ability to do all of this at the same time.”
It’s against the law to fly the helicopters in Saudi Arabia, but any disappointment is quickly abated at dinner time. Scenic Eclipse has 10 eateries to choose from, offering an Indian tasting menu, fine French molecular cuisine and Asian fusion, among others. There’s a sushi counter where the fish has been flash-frozen and imported from Japan – the butter-soft salmon sashimi tastes as fresh as can be, and is sliced expertly before your eyes alongside yellowtail, octopus and tuna. And as we’re 20km away from the dry mainland, alcohol can be served with the meal, too (a pinot noir from Marlborough, New Zealand).
When it’s time to go back to dry land, an even more astounding destination awaits: AlUla, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site. An hour’s flight into the vast, ochre desert from port city Yanbu, it encompasses a series of 2,000-year-old tombs cut directly into sandstone rocks, by the same civilisation that built Petra. It’s incredible to be the only tour group there, as well as in the ancient mud-brick-built old town by the nearby oasis – and we’re aware that this could change if Vision 2030 is successful: by the end of the decade, 100 million tourists each year are predicted to come to Saudi Arabia.
Our final night involves rides on camels and dune buggies over the desert dunes back in Jeddah, while we discuss the future of cruise tourism in this country. “I have to say, the difference between my expectations and the reality was wider here than anywhere I have been before,” says Scenic founder and CEO Glen Moroney.
“We’re seeing a lot of interest from luxury cruise lines,” says Mark Robinson, chief commercial officer for Cruise Saudi – a body set up in January 2021 to introduce cruising to Saudi Arabia. With Cruise Saudi’s assistance, MSC Cruises is beginning a Saudi Arabia programme on 13 November, as well as combined cruises through Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
“We’ve created a new source market. In 2018, 98 ships sailed past Saudi Arabia but weren’t allowed to stop. Now, I see huge potential here.”