Sailing past pristine islands and turquoise lagoons, the first cruise ship offering Saudi tours serves a twin purpose – jump-starting tourism despite coronavirus fears and showcasing austerity-defying megaprojects planned along the Red Sea. In August, the cruise liner Silver Spirit began offering tours along the unspoilt Red Sea coastline, which the petrostate aspires to turn into a global tourism and investment hotspot as part of a plan to reduce reliance on oil revenue. Chartered by a company owned by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, the luxury ship offers a window into multibillion-dollar “giga projects” that the kingdom is forging ahead with despite a sharp economic downturn. “We are introducing the Red Sea to the world,” Tourism Minister Ahmed al-Khatib said in an interview aboard the ship. “We are unlocking the value of the Red Sea.” On a four-day cruise the ship sailed past the sites of key developments, including one designed to be a Maldives-style resort destination embracing dozens of picturesque islands, and Amaala, a luxury tourism project. For a few hours, it anchored off two islands, including Sindala, which forms a sliver of NEOM, a US$500 billion planned megacity that is roughly the size of Belgium. Cruise passengers toured the tiny coral reef-fringed island, otherwise off-limits to the public, in golf carts and dined at a Michelin-star pop-up restaurant perched on the shore. Social media influencers invited on the trip posed for photos in shallow turquoise waters and on sandy white beaches. You can go for a cruise again in Taiwan, but it’s different Sceptics question the viability of the giant projects amid a precipitous fall in government revenue due to a virus-led economic contraction and a sharp drop in oil prices. The world’s top oil exporter says it plans to slash government spending by more than 7 per cent next year as the budget deficit is expected to widen to 12 per cent of gross domestic product in 2020. But simultaneously, the government is awarding multibillion-dollar contracts for what would be the world’s largest construction projects. “The new projects on the Red Sea coast are pushing ahead despite Covid-19 and low oil prices,” said Colin Foreman, an editor at the Middle East Economic Digest . “Over the coming three years, Saudi Arabia’s government will be smaller but its projects will be bigger.” Khatib, who sits on the boards of several megaprojects including NEOM, said the developments were moving “very fast” with “unlimited support” from the top Saudi leadership. The kingdom introduced the high-end cruise just as the global cruise industry largely ground to a halt amid the threat of potential coronavirus outbreaks on ships. In late August, the Silver Spirit was forced to turn back halfway, after a suspected coronavirus case on board. The ship’s crew were quarantined in guest cabins for two weeks. But the trips resumed soon afterwards, with most passengers tested for the virus twice before embarkation. Saudi Arabia launched tourist visas just last year, opening up one of the last frontiers of global tourism as a key part of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s drive to diversify the economy. With the cheapest tickets costing around 6,000 riyals (US$1,600), the cruise aims to lure deep-pocketed domestic tourists amid a wider disruption in international travel. As well as spacious suites and private butlers, the trip offered sartorial freedoms that are rare on dry land. Almost entirely absent were the abaya robes mandatory for Saudi women. However, to maintain the privacy of passengers in their beachwear, mobile phones were required to be placed in sealed pouches during island stopovers. And in a country that forbids alcohol, the ship’s bars offered only alcohol-free merlot, chardonnay and lager. The Silver Spirit set sail from the King Abdullah Economic City, a multibillion-dollar project close to the western city of Jeddah that serves as a cautionary tale for the giga projects it showcases. The mammoth development, launched more than a decade ago as part of a diversification plan to build new cities, appears largely empty and underscores the kingdom’s long-standing struggle to lure investment in areas other than fossil fuels.