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Cruise Saudi CEO reveals big ambitions for kingdom’s tourism

MSC Bellissima cruised the Red Sea in Cruise Saudi's first full summer season, which started in July 2021
MSC Bellissima cruised the Red Sea in Cruise Saudi's first full summer season, which started in July 2021

Riyadh wants tourism to be 10 percent of its GDP by the end of the decade – in part by becoming a hub for cruise travel. Cruise Saudi boss Lars Clasen tells AGBI how he aims to attract 1 million visitors a year

Lars Clasen is on a mission to transform Saudi Arabia into one of the world’s leading cruise tourism destinations. The recently appointed CEO of Cruise Saudi, a Public Investment Fund-owned entity tasked with boosting the country’s fledgling tourism sector, has the target of bringing 1 million cruise visitors a year to the kingdom by 2028.

“Our ultimate goal is to establish the Red Sea and Saudi Arabia as a cruising hub, echoing the history of the region as a maritime hub, with Cruise Saudi as the driving force behind building a fully integrated and sustainable cruise offering,” he said.

“We are in a fortunate position because we also have the complete backing of the Saudi government to build a fully integrated cruise industry that will serve as a new economic pillar and growth engine in Saudi’s tourism industry.”

Lars Clasen said Cruise Saudi was looking to create 50,000 jobs in the industry by 2035
Lars Clasen said Cruise Saudi was looking to create 50,000 jobs in the industry by 2035

A promising future

Clasen, a German national who has previously worked for Ritz-Carlton Yacht Collection, A-ROSA River Cruises and AIDA Cruises, said: “Saudi Arabia is a new and exciting tourism destination on the world stage; and through port and local destination development, Cruise Saudi has opened a new gateway that connects Saudi to the rest of the world,” he said.

“The future of the cruise industry is looking promising and very exciting.”

He added that Cruise Saudi is looking to create 50,000 jobs in the kingdom’s cruise industry by 2035 as it talks to more cruise lines to add Saudi destinations to their itineraries.

“Vital international partnerships have resulted in close collaboration with major cruise lines, starting with MSC, who have committed their ships to a long-term deal sailing Saudi waters along the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf… Silversea also partnered to bring a ship for the trial that ran during the pandemic.”

According to Clasen, that trial was a huge success and demonstrated that the kingdom could become a desirable cruise market. He added that the response from global cruise operators as well as the international cruising community had been “humbling”.

The country has the landscapes, history, culture and cuisine to attract visitors from across the globe

Cruise Saudi has so far welcomed ships from four cruise lines – MSC, Scenic, Viking and Silversea – which have completed over 70 sailings during the summer and winter seasons in 2021/22. To date, more than 50,000 cruise passenger visits have been recorded and Clasen expects that number to increase as the world continues to emerge from the pandemic.

The company has also announced a joint venture with hospitality firm Aman Group to build a luxury yacht to sail in Saudi waters and internationally by 2025.

Tourism vision

Saudi Arabia has been expanding its tourism offering rapidly in line with its Vision 2030 plan to diversify the economy away from oil. It has six World Heritage sites recognised by UNESCO, including Historic Jeddah and the Al-Ahsa oasis. The kingdom has launched international events such as the Formula 1 Grand Prix and the Red Sea International Film Festival. The target is to increase the tourism sector’s contribution to 10 percent of GDP by 2030 and attract 100 million visitors.

The kingdom has been largely closed off to non-Muslim international tourists until recently, so Clasen is excited by its opening up: “Saudi Arabia is an exciting inbound tourism destination new to the world stage. The country has the landscapes, history, culture and cuisine to attract visitors from across the globe.

“By developing the necessary infrastructure, including passenger ports and developing destinations, Cruise Saudi plans to showcase the true potential of Saudi.”

Collaboration efforts

Earlier this year, the Saudi government introduced a new e-visa for cruise tourists in the latest move to boost inbound tourism. Clasen added that Cruise Saudi was open to collaboration with other GCC countries to promote the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf as destinations.

He added that Cruise Saudi is working with national airline Saudia to facilitate connectivity from key cities worldwide, and with the Royal Commission of AlUla to enable cruise passengers to visit the ancient Nabataean archaeological site of Hegra, one of the UNESCO sites.

The company is also building a new cruise terminal at King Abdulaziz Port in Dammam. Under plans revealed last November, the terminal will feature four berths as part of an agreement with the Saudi Ports Authority (Mawani) and Globe Group.

“We will work with our partners to develop more ports and destinations, in addition to a wide range of shore excursions that cater to all sorts of activities and interests for visitors, from culture and heritage to entertainment, adventure and nature, and ensure tourists have the complete Saudi experience.”

Jeddah Old Town
Historic Jeddah is one of the kingdom’s six UNESCO World Heritage sites

Saudi tourism and Cruise Saudi factfile

  • Approximately 250 million people in Europe, Asia and Africa live within a three-hour flight of the Red Sea or Arabian Gulf
  • Saudi Arabia hosts six UNESCO World Heritage sites that have rarely been seen by international tourists
  • Saudi Arabia hosted more than 70 cruise sailings during the summer and winter seasons of 2021/22
  • The first full summer season started in July 2021 with Scenic Eclipse and MSC Bellissima cruising the Red Sea coast
  • Cruise Saudi has secured memberships of three key industry bodies: World Travel & Tourism Council, Cruise Lines International Association and the Association of Mediterranean Cruise Ports
  • Cruise Saudi’s emergence is part of Riyadh’s efforts to catch up with the UAE, Qatar and Oman’s established markets. Dubai is set to welcome over 500,000 cruise tourists in the 2021/22 season. Ninety-nine cruise ships are scheduled to visit Oman in 2021/22. Before the pandemic, it had about 280,000 visitors in a season. Qatar Tourism welcomed almost 58,000 passengers in the first half of 2021/22. Qatar has also partnered with MSC Cruises to charter two of its ships during the FIFA World Cup, providing fans with accommodation. 

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