Saudi Arabia is to become the jumping off point for a major cruise line for the first time later this year with MSC Cruises operating a new series of voyages exploring the Red Sea.
The Switzerland-based line is partnering with Cruise Saudi, a Saudi-owned organization that's working to promote the country as a cruise destination.
MSC Cruises plans to homeport its MSC Magnifica ship in the historic city of Jeddah.
From there, visitors will embark on seven-day Red Sea cruises, stopping off at Aqaba for the spectacular ancient city of Petra in Jordan and calling at the port of Safaga, Egypt to see the ancient sites at Luxor. There will also be stopovers at two other Saudi ports, AlWajh and Yanbu.
The cruise route is scheduled to operate from November 2021 to March 2022.
Meanwhile, MSC Virtuosa -- an as-yet-to-be-debuted ship slated to premier on MSC's upcoming summer UK staycation voyages -- will sail around the Arabian Gulf, including port calls at the Saudi Arabia city of Dammam and the Al-Ahsa oasis world heritage site.
Saudi Arabia has been attempting to market itself as an international tourist destination in recent years in an attempt to diversify its oil-dependent economy by 2030.
It's investing huge sums in developing luxury resorts and promoting historic treasures, but will face challenges to attract visitors who may previously have been dissuaded by the country's poor reputation over human rights and conservative laws that restrict the freedoms of women.
Saudi Arabia launched a tourist visa in 2019 and unveiled plans last year to build a subterranean resort below the Al-Ula desert.
MSC Cruises is the first major cruise line to set up shop in Saudi Arabia. Local tourist cruise operator Red Sea Spirit launched Red Sea cruises in August 2020.
Future cruise plans
In a statement, Cruise Saudi said it was keen to make the agreement with MSC Cruises a "long-term partnership."
"We look forward to exploring opportunities to increase the number and size of vessels operating on Saudi routes in the future," said Fawaz Farooqui, managing director of Cruise Saudi.
Meanwhile MSC Cruises' Pierfrancesco Vago said in a statement that the cruise line was attracted by "the richness of the local heritage." Vago said he hoped the voyages will attract tourists from across the world, as well as local visitors from Saudi Arabia.
The global cruise industry has been severely impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Cruising has tentatively recommenced in some markets -- including in Italy, via MSC Cruises and Costa Cruise Line -- but remains currently out of action in the United States.
Meanwhile, several cruise lines are planning British domestic voyages this summer, including Disney, P&O, Royal Caribbean, Celebrity Cruise Line and Cunard.
Some cruise lines -- including Royal Caribbean and Celebrity -- plan to limit upcoming voyages to vaccinated passengers only.
MSC is currently accepting bookings from all guests regardless of whether or not they've been vaccinated and relying on other safety measures, including pre-boarding testing -- but the cruise line has committed to vaccinating all crew members.