JEDDAH: Timing is everything in business so for a cruise ship company to launch its debut voyage in Saudi Arabia the same year as a global pandemic seemed like a dicey move.
But it did not slow down the well-known Geneva-headquartered MSC Cruises, which waited for COVID-19 restrictions to calm down before it hit the open water.
“After what happened with the cruising industry, everything stopped,” Giuseppe Pane, the hotel director of MSC Cruises, told Arab News. “MSC was the first company with big ships to start cruising again and open the sea.”
This was the first year for MSC to cruise in Saudi Arabia as part of the Kingdom’s initiatives to open up the country for tourism. The MSC Bellissima, which is longer than three football fields, started its series of voyages around the Red Sea from Jeddah Islamic Port to Aqaba in Jordan and Safaga in Egypt in July 2021.
Even though MSC was hoping to make a big splash in a post-pandemic world, the company still had to adapt to restrictions and limitations that affected the entire industry. Cruise ships tend to make stops at different ports so each time the vessel docked, the crew and passengers were exposed to different protocols and circumstances.
“These protocols caused a lot of limitations,” Pane said. “What you experience now onboard a three- or four-day trip are just a little part of what cruising is really about.”
Mask mandates, vaccination status, and social distancing are all somewhat new concepts for an international cruising industry that really took off in the 1960s.
But Pane said MSC was a leading example for other cruising companies who suffered during the pandemic, as it quickly adapted to protocols approved by different governments and ports.
The main example was the number of passengers the MSC Bellissima could take on board. The massive ship was built in 2019 with a capacity of 4,500 passengers, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, the boat’s capacity was cut in half.
The cruise ship’s theater can usually hold up to 975 guests but the empty seats during a show were vast and the same thing was felt inside the many dining areas onboard.
But despite the limitations, Pane said he was happy with the results this year, especially since cruising in the Kingdom is new.
“The thing that makes me emotional is to see the children crying when they disembark because they are leaving something that they enjoyed,” he said.
The ship is also equipped with an aquapark, bowling alley, Formula One simulator, kids club, cinema, and shopping gallery with more than 200 brands.
During a four-day cruise, Saudi comedians perform two interactive shows while mixing local flavor, excitement, and plenty of laughs.
Aside from the pandemic, Pane said MSC faced challenges when it launched the cruise in the Kingdom as some of the products the cruise offered did not match the Saudi standards. Especially when it came to entertainment along with food and beverage.
“Wherever you go around the world, the products offered have to adapt to the guests’ taste,” he said.
Pane said MSC had the local culture in mind when it planned out activities. It took some time but Saudis started to enjoy some of the new entertainment options offered. He said guests were shy to take dance lessons during the first few weeks of the trips. But after a while, the participation wheel turned and the dance floor was packed.
To adapt to the guests’ food and beverage preferences, Pane said MSC recruited a team of Saudi chefs to help design a menu that would satisfy all guests.
The crew did not want to get lost in translation when dealing with guests so the company hired many employees from the Kingdom who served as “cruise ambassadors” to smooth out communication.
MSC announced earlier this year that it was open to train and qualify Saudi nationals in all areas of the cruise industry. Their emergence within the staff has been a successful one.
“The team on board was fantastic,” Pane said.
“What makes me happy is that most of the guests say that they want to come back. They want to bring their families and friends and this means that we are doing a good job. But still, we are always trying to find how we can do better.”
The latest series of MSC Bellissima voyages in Sadi Arabia ended Wednesday. Pane said MSC’s seven-day trips will open again Nov. 13 and continue until March 26, 2022. The ship will be cruising in Asia next summer.