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Cruise ship sails as Saudi reopens to vaccinated tourists

RIYADH: In this file photo taken on March 29, 2021, people walk on a tree-lined lane in the Saudi capital. – AFP

RIYADH: A super cruise ship has departed Saudi Arabia for the first time, setting sail for regional waters as the kingdom seeks to expand its tourism industry and diversify its oil-dependent economy. The MSC Bellissima, a vessel longer than three football fields, departed for the first in a series of voyages from Jeddah Islamic Port to Aqaba in Jordan and Safaga in Egypt.

The launch of the service on Friday comes two days after Saudi Arabia opened its first cruise ship terminal at the port in Jeddah, on the kingdom’s west coast. “The inauguration of the first cruise ship port represents an important step… to support the growth of the tourism sector in the kingdom,” Cruise Saudi managing director Fawaz Farooqi said, quoted by Saudi Press Agency.

Developing the tourism and leisure sector is one of the foundations of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” plan to prepare the Arab world’s largest economy for the post-oil era. The Gulf country enacted a landmark decision in 2019 to offer tourist visas, relaxing rules that had largely restricted visits to business travelers and Muslim pilgrims.

Citizens from 49 countries – mostly European – had become eligible to apply to visit the kingdom, which has a population of around 35 million. Between September 2019 and March 2020, it issued 400,000 – only for the pandemic to crush that momentum as borders were closed.

Constructed in France, the MSC Bellissima is 315 meters long and has a capacity of 4,500 passengers, making it one of the world’s largest cruise ships. First launched in 2019 and operated by Swiss-based MSC Cruises, it will embark on 21 trips up until Oct 30. The mammoth vessel has an array of amenities, including swimming pools, gyms, restaurants, cafes and ballrooms. The price of journeys start at 2,195 Saudi riyals (about $585), according to travel agencies, with some itineraries including Luxor in Egypt and Petra in Jordan.

Cruise Saudi, owned by the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund, also struck a deal in April with MSC Cruises to launch winter voyages between Nov 2021 and March 2022. These cruises will start out from Jeddah and Dammam on the eastern Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia in the hope of attracting 170,000 guests.

The global cruise industry has taken a severe hit as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which has so far resulted in the death of more than four million people worldwide. Saudi Arabia is accelerating a nationwide COVID-19 vaccination drive as it moves to revive tourism and host sports and entertainment events. MSC Bellissima’s crew stayed in quarantine for 14 days before the trip on Friday, according to Saudi state television.

On Thursday the kingdom announced that it will open its doors to fully-inoculated visitors. However, Riyadh did not announce any lifting of restrictions on the umrah, a pilgrimage that can be undertaken at any time, which usually attracts millions of Muslims from across the globe each year. “The Ministry of Tourism announced that the Kingdom will open its doors to foreign tourists, and lift… the suspension of entry for tourist visa holders, starting from August 1,” the Saudi Press Agency reported.

It said travelers fully vaccinated with Saudi-approved jabs – Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson – will be able to enter the kingdom “without the need for an institutional quarantine period”, provided they also have proof of a negative PCR COVID-19 test taken within the last 72 hours and register their details with health authorities.

COVID-19 hugely disrupted the hajj and umrah pilgrimages, usually a key revenue earner for the kingdom – in normal times, they together rake in some $12 billion annually. Currently only immunized pilgrims resident in Saudi Arabia are eligible for umrah permits.

The government has accelerated a nationwide vaccination drive as it moves to revive tourism and host sports and entertainment extravaganzas, all pandemic-hit sectors. So far, 26 million jabs have been administered to the population of 35 million, and the kingdom has said that from Aug 1, vaccinations will be mandatory to enter government and private establishments, including education institutions and entertainment venues, as well as to use public transport. Saudi Arabia has registered more than 523,000 coronavirus cases, with 8,213 deaths. – Agencies

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