Looking for an off-the-beaten track cruising destination? Saudi Arabia could be an emerging winter sun location for superyachts, as the owner and captain of 85-metre Sunrays tell Sophia Wilson following their season in the Middle East...
The superyacht winter migration is almost comforting in its regularity. As the horns blow for the end of the Monaco Yacht Show in September, a steady stream of yachts start to head west to the warmer climes of the Caribbean for winter. At the same time, a handful of more adventurous yachts opt to go east and you can watch on the AIS tracker as they make their way to the sandy atolls of the Maldives or even further afield.
But what if there was another option? Close to the Med but still offering temperate weather, undiscovered sandy coves and warm waters filled with abundant marine life? The owner of 85-metre Oceanco Sunrays believes the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia provides exactly this opportunity.
“We have always gone to the Maldives or Thailand but it’s a long journey, and with the security and piracy issues it is a bit of a headache every time,” he explains. “We have been going past Saudi Arabia for the past 10 years, but we hadn’t considered it a destination.” All that changed, however, when Sunrays visited the country as part of Red Sea Week (a superyacht rendezvous) in 2019. “I started to understand that it’s an amazing location for superyachts of all sizes for the wintertime. You go through the Suez Canal and you are there. The water is 27 degrees and it’s just fantastic,” he says.
As a result of the experience, the owner took the bold decision for Sunrays to spend most of the 2020/21 winter season in Saudi Arabia, joining for four separate trips. His excursions explored the 450-nautical-mile stretch of coastline between Jeddah and Sindalah Island, the latter of which is now part of the futuristic new city of Neom. Dan Hughes, the boat’s captain, has been pleasantly surprised by what Saudi Arabia has to offer. “It is a unique destination, unlike any other I’ve been to before,” he says. “We have cruised the east coast of Oman, which is the closest I could compare it to. You have a low-lying flat coastline with lots of reefs and sandy islands, and then you have the backdrop of the hazy mountains behind.”
As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the yacht’s itinerary had to be primarily based around onboard activities and exploration, but they found the destination still had plenty to offer. “As you cruise the entire environment changes,” says the owner. “The water stays nice and warm but the colour of the sand changes and what you are looking at changes with every place you visit.” Highlights of the trips have included helicoptering into the city of AlUla and visiting the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hegra, with its 111 preserved tombs in the desert landscape, and spending time on Sindalah Island.
The sandy beaches and deserted islands further north have also proved to be perfect for beach set-ups. Numan island, just south of Duba, is one of Captain Hughes’s new favourite stop-offs. “It is a very dramatic sandy island with a deep bay, which is well protected from the prevailing north-westerly winds,” he explains. “We have done some of our best beach set-ups there and the coral in the bay is great for diving.”
The Red Sea is renowned for its diving opportunities and Saudi Arabia benefits from being undiscovered as a tourist destination. “There are so many reefs along the coast that almost anywhere you decide to go is likely to be great,” says Captain Hughes. “Due to the lack of dive tourism, it’s pretty unspoiled everywhere.”
The flexibility and accessibility that a yacht offers means the owner has been able to take full advantage. “My wife and I have been diving every day,” he says. “We have dived a lot in the Maldives, Thailand, Asia and the Caribbean and I would say it is some of the best diving in the world. The beauty is that the coral is not bleached, so it is really vibrant and alive.”
These dive sites won’t stay undiscovered for long, with Saudi Arabia set for an influx of tourists once pandemic restrictions ease. As part of its Vision 2030 mission the country is shifting its economic model away from a reliance on traditional industries such as oil, and tourism is seen as a vital new revenue stream. In 2019, it launched its tourist visa programme, making it possible for the first time for visitors from 49 countries to apply for e-visas. At the same time, billions of dollars are also being invested in tourism infrastructure, including three giga-projects; the futuristic city of Neom, the entertainment focused Qiddiya and The Red Sea Project. The latter will encompass an archipelago of more than 90 pristine islands incorporating island getaways, mountain retreats and desert adventure opportunities. One development in the Red Sea will be Amaala, a luxury tourism project incorporating hotels and real estate. Amaala is aiming to become a new hub for the superyacht community, with a state-of-the-art marina due to be completed by 2028.
Saudi Arabia becoming the “Riviera of the Middle East” may seem at odds with its traditionally conservative culture. However, the owner of Sunrays has found the country to be “extremely welcoming”. “There is a lot of news around Saudi and what is allowed and not allowed but we have never had any issues. People have been extremely hospitable and when you are on your boat, they let you be,” he says. Despite limited time on shore, Captain Hughes has shared this experience. “Similarly to when we visited the UAE or Oman, dressing conservatively when travelling on land is the norm. But we haven’t had any negative experiences and there is a very apparent wish to find a way to develop tourism here. There is an understanding as part of that development that it is inevitable that local and western cultures will meet.”
As part of Saudi Arabia’s development vision, the traditionally shuttered society is also welcoming a host of events to its shores, including the inaugural Saudi Grand Prix in Jeddah this December. This new events calendar is something that Sunrays’ owner has already been able to take advantage of, timing trips to coincide with the Saudi International golf tournament, held in the King Abdullah Economic City, and the first-ever Extreme E rally (a new international off-road racing series using electric SUVs to race in remote parts of the world). “They had organised the PGA golf event and we had the boat right next to the golf course,” says the owner. “It is one of the few places where they are integrating golf with yachting.” In order to make the most of some of these opportunities, Hughes has found Sunrays’ onboard helicopter a key component. “It allows some real flexibility and of course offers a quick way of accessing shoreside events,” he says. “We’ve used it frequently during our time here, including to attend the Extreme E rally in AlUla.”
Securing permission to use the helicopter was just one piece of red tape that Captain Hughes had to overcome as Sunrays explored the region. “There have been some understandable logistical challenges with being one of the first international yachts to cruise the coast,” Hughes says. When the owner has not been on board, the yacht has been using Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt as a logistical hub. “Covid-19 has added some extra challenges, as Saudi Arabia’s rules meant that we were not able to do crew changes in the country. As a result, we used Sharm El-Sheikh to get crew in and out and also to fly in provisions. It’s a great pit stop for doing what you need to do,” Hughes says.
The captain has worked with four different agents over the winter season to help find the best way to comply with Saudi Arabian regulations, which currently require a significant amount of advanced planning. “An itinerary will be requested by the agent prior to arriving in Saudi Arabia, with waypoints and timings for any planned moves, which the coastguard then has to approve,” he explains. “Our operation is usually pretty spontaneous, but we’ve managed.”
Captain Hughes has generally found things “more fluid” to the north, with a more commercial mindset towards vessels apparent in the south near Jeddah. “Using Duba as our point of entry has proven the best option for us, partly due to its incredibly helpful harbour master Captain Ahmed,” he adds. “I have found the Saudi Arabian people to be unfailingly polite, which has really helped when our plans have to evolve. The Saudi government is also keen to get feedback so that it can improve things for the yachts that come here in the future.”
Saudi Arabia may have big plans for the future, but at the moment it remains an off-the-beaten-track destination. “For now, visiting still requires quite a bit of planning. It is a destination for spending time on board and for those looking for a bit of an adventure,” says the owner. “But unless you go there you don’t really understand how much it has to offer.”
Time will tell whether Saudi Arabia will take its place as a major winter destination for the superyacht set. But for the owner of Sunrays it is already a clear winner. “The hospitality and experience in Saudi Arabia has been second to none,” he concludes. “While we love the Indian Ocean, the Saudi Arabian coastline has a lot more to offer and is so much closer to the Med. It’s the obvious choice for us.”
This feature is taken from the July 2021 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.shop now