You announced recently that MSC Cruises will add the Red Sea to your winter 2021/21 portfolio. What was your rationale?
I’m very optimistic about our Red Sea itinerary as a new destination for our winter sailings and I’d go as far as saying that it’s going to be a winner. That word ‘new’ is very attractive for experienced cruise holidaymakers and the itinerary itself is incredible. Within the seven-night sailing our guests will have the opportunity to see some jaw-dropping sights in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. For someone travelling from Europe in wintertime they can leave their coats at home and find terrific weather and beautiful, pristine golden beaches. An even further added bonus will be that sailing around the Red Sea on a cruise ship will be the only and most spectacular way to take in stunning untouched coastlines and enjoy the region’s ancient unspoilt beauty.
So do you think that the real appeal for Red Sea cruises is experienced cruisers who’ve visited the Caribbean and are looking for something different?
I think there’s more to it than that. As a truly international brand you’ll find on board our fleet of ships a broad cross section of different nationalities, guests of all ages, couples, families, groups of friends, experienced cruisers and those that are new to cruise. That diverse customer base is something that we’re extremely proud of and it’s a real strength of MSC Cruises. We know that such an eclectic mix means that they all have different and specific aspirations for what will constitute a great and memorable holiday and our Red Sea cruises will deliver on all counts.
There’s something for absolutely everyone whether it be culture and traditions that date back many thousands of years, somewhere new to visit, amazing beaches, fabulous weather and the chance to enjoy a well-earned break.
Egypt and Jordan have been on the cruise industry’s map for a while but Saudi Arabia is new player. What’s the attraction there?
Our guests will get to visit places that they’ve probably not seen before and I’m sure the memories will live long of the new experiences that they are sure to enjoy. Saudi Arabia is extremely keen for more people to visit its country and we believe there will be a strong desire to do so on board a cruise ship.
I’m very positive and excited about our Red Sea itinerary and I really believe that Saudi Arabia will feature more in the future of winter cruising and we ourselves at MSC Cruises are looking at how we can potentially develop our presence even further in the future.
You’re very optimistic about your Red Sea cruises. What about the Middle East as a whole?
The Middle East is extremely important for us and we’re proud to be the biggest market shareholder in the region. As well as the new Red Sea cruises from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, our newest ship MSC Virtuosa has added Dammam in Saudi Arabia for her first season in the Gulf from her homeport in Dubai. MSC Opera will also be based in Dubai for winter 2021/22 for cruises to Oman and from a business perspective we were really pleased to sign preferential berthing rights in 2019 for our ships in both Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Isn’t it difficult to get a visa to visit Saudi Arabia?
No, not at all. Guests who buy our ‘Fly & Cruise’ package will have a visa for Saudi Arabia – which is valued at Euros €30 per person - included in the overall cost. For those that opt to buy a cruise only they will be responsible to obtain their visa and all guests from countries within the Gulf Cooperation Council countries won’t need visas. Visas to visit Jordan and Egypt on one of our shore excursions will be included in the guest’s holiday package, whether it be Fly & Cruise or cruise only.
Alcohol is banned in many Middle Eastern countries. How will you deal with that?
Alcohol will be available for our guests on board our ship in the Red Sea as it is similarly on our cruise ships that have in the past operated in the Arabian Gulf and will do so also in winter 2021/22. Alcohol won’t be served during our ship’s calls in Saudi Arabian ports but will be available to guests when the ship sails in international waters. What we will do is enrich our long list of non-alcoholic drinks to offer even more tastier drinking choices when the ship is docked in Saudi Arabian ports.
What about shore excursions in Saudi Arabia and dress codes?
A spectacular shore excursions programme will be finalised soon and in terms of dress code all our guests – male and female - will have to respect local customs and traditions, something that our guests are used to with our sailings in the Gulf region where clothing needs to be modest and appropriate. Local customs in Saudi Arabia require men and women to dress modestly, with their shoulders and knees covered in public areas, and they should avoid wearing tight-fitting clothing or clothes with profane language or images.
How do you see the long-term prospects for you in the Middle East?
We have a sizeable future global investment portfolio of new vessels which is projected to grow from 19 this year to 23 cruise ships by 2025 with options for six vessel orders in place through to 2030. We are the market leaders in the Gulf region of the Middle East and it’s a part of the world that has, as we also have at MSC Cruises, real drive and ambition. The area is home for some of the world’s major airlines and finest airports which are incredibly important factors for international travellers and extremely significant for us too. We’re very optimistic about further developments in the Red Sea and the Gulf as we look to retain our number one position in the region and see our share increase.