IT’S APPROACHING 5 PM, and the sun is already sinking into the dusky horizon, wavering languidly in the 95-degree heat. The call to prayer crackles through a loudspeaker above street level, reverberating through the empty walkways of Jeddah’s old town. Between the carefully restored wooden shutters and squeaky-clean cobblestone streets, there’s no one in sight — apart from the 30 or so other western travelers in my tour group. I’ve been traveling in Saudi Arabia for two days, and I’ve only met one person so far who lives here: our tour guide, Bandar Abdulrahman Al-Harbi.
I’m on a preview cruise of Emerald Cruises’ new Red Sea itineraries, due to launch in January 2022. The ship we’re on, Scenic Eclipse, is an expedition vessel built to slice through ice sheets in the Antarctic circle. But it’s been brought to one of the hottest places on earth to transport some 150 of us in total — plus a crew of around the same number — from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s second-largest city, some 430 miles up the coast to a modest port city called Yanbu, on to a heritage site called AlUla, and back.
Traveling to Saudi Arabia has been all but impossible for the past 17 years, which is when Scenic CEO Glen Moroney tells me the last cruise took place here. My group is one of the first few international visitors to experience a change in the kingdom, thanks to a project called Saudi Vision 2030 led by the kingdom’s de facto ruler, 36-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
A range of social and economic changes, which not long ago would have been unthinkable, have swept into Saudi society since Vision 2030 was announced in 2017. Women have won the right to drive, own businesses and travel unchaperoned, and foreign investment has increased to diversify the economy away from oil. Though still reliant on its oil reservoirs, Saudi Arabia has announced ambitions to become a global sustainability leader, too. And tourism is at the crossroads of it all.
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