AlUla: transforming into a tourism hotspot
Nestled amidst the enchanting landscapes of north-east Saudi Arabia, AlUla is rapidly emerging as a world-class heritage destination, captivating the hearts of travellers with its rich history and breathtaking scenery.
The region is embarking on a transformative journey, bolstering its infrastructure to solidify its status as a global tourism hotspot. “Currently, we have a strong focus on enhancing airline connectivity and developing new hotels,” said Melanie De Souza, Executive Director of Destination Marketing at the Royal Commission for AlUla, during an interview with TTN at the impressive AlUla stand at the recent ATM 2023.
On the aviation front, AlUla has made significant strides in expanding its reach. Royal Jordanian Airlines is set to commence operations in September, establishing a vital connection between AlUla and Jordan. This development follows the success of seasonal flights from Paris and Cairo. Furthermore, flydubai continues to offer seamless connections with Dubai. Efforts are underway to strengthen airline connectivity from within Saudi Arabia itself, ensuring easy access to AlUla’s treasures, De Souza added.
“Our presence on the global stage as a cultural destination will become a reality in a matter of years
– Melanie De Souza
AlUla is also witnessing an impressive rise in hospitality offerings, she said. The destination will soon welcome three new hotels that will redefine luxury and charm. Among them is the Chedi, an exquisite establishment located in the old town. Another jewel in AlUla’s crown is the Sharaan Resort, designed by the internationally acclaimed architect Jean Nouvel. Drawing inspiration from the ancient techniques of the Nabataean inhabitants, this resort showcases an architectural marvel, blending with the surrounding Sharaan Nature Reserve. The Dar Tantora by The House Hotel is currently under construction in AlUla Old Town, offering an upscale eco-lodge experience. This unique property aims to restore historical mud-brick buildings using a combination of traditional materials and modern engineering, providing a glimpse into AlUla’s rich past while offering unparalleled comfort.
“There is also an exciting pipeline of hotels for the next five years, including some very significant brand names such as Aman Resorts, which has committed four hotels,” she said.
Beyond its infrastructure developments, AlUla is making significant strides in the realms of arts, culture, and adventure. Under the banner of AlUla Moments, the region has launched a prolific programme of festivals, captivating visitors with a diverse range of cultural experiences.
Meanwhile, AlUla’s archaeological sites rank among the largest and most significant in the world. “AlUla is currently one of the largest digging sites anywhere in the world. These sites shed light on a civilization associated with the ancient North Arabian kingdom. They are truly amazing and not only redefine what we know about this advanced civilization but also our understanding of humanity,” noted De Souza.
Recent excavations have yielded extraordinary findings, including a majestic statue of a king associated with the Lihyan Kingdom, now displayed at the Louvre in Paris. These discoveries, along with a wealth of terracotta, jewelry, and porcelain artifacts, contribute to a compelling narrative that will soon be showcased in an upcoming documentary by National Geographic.
“I think this is a place with a heritage that is of a global scale,” explained De Souza as she painted a vivid picture of the wonders that await in this captivating destination.
“AlUla boasts awe-inspiring landscapes that serve as the backdrop for a diverse range of adventure activities and experiences. Its commitment to arts, culture, and sustainability sets it apart, positioning it as a rising star on the global stage.”
AlUla’s arts and cultural offerings are not only compelling now, but the region also has an exciting lineup of projects in the pipeline that will further enhance its reputation, said De Souza. These include Wadi Alfann, a forthcoming project that will become the largest outdoor sculpture park in the world, as well as the Desert X AlUla, a recurring, site-responsive, international art exhibition.
“Our presence on the global stage as a cultural destination will become a reality in a matter of years,” De Souza added.
“There is an abundance of experiences awaiting visitors in AlUla, catering to a wide range of interests. Whether you seek adrenaline-fueled adventures, delve into the depths of history, immerse yourself in the arts and creative industries, or savour exquisite gastronomy, AlUla has it all. The destination boasts a myriad of dining options against the backdrop of a county that prioritises sustainability. For the first time, the local community revels in the opportunity to showcase their home to an international audience,” she said.
She reminds us that Saudi Arabia’s journey into international tourism began a mere three years ago, adding: “It’s a very compelling story on many levels. The fact that we have such strong brand awareness already within three years, without having spent big money on advertising, is a testimony to the positive word of mouth that the destination is already enjoying.”
The number of visitors to AlUla is steadily increasing, with 185,000 recorded last year. This year, the aim is to welcome 250,000 visitors, and by 2035, the ambitious target is set at 2 million tourists.
AlUla aims to position itself as a boutique heritage cultural and nature-based destination, offering experiences that resonate with a discerning audience. Luxury experiences are at the core of AlUla’s offerings.
When asked about the ideal duration for a visit to AlUla, De Souza explained that during peak periods with numerous events and festivals, a stay of six to seven days would allow ample time to immerse oneself in the destination’s offerings. However, AlUla caters to year-round travel, making it suitable for both extended vacations and shorter weekend getaways. Family connections and reconnections are easily nurtured within the destination’s welcoming embrace.
In terms of development, AlUla is well on its way to becoming a fully realised destination. Master plans have been approved, and significant progress has been made in delivering on those plans. “Visitors can already experience the destination and spend a very decent length of stay premised on the fact that our heritage sites are all done and ready, there is significant retail and dining and significant amount of experiences already on offer,” she said.
De Souza highlighted the critical importance of the GCC markets for the destination. “With 75 per cent of the numbers coming from Saudi Arabia and the GCC, AlUla benefits from proximity and offers a distinct and enticing proposition. Even during the hottest summer months, AlUla’s temperatures are a refreshing 10 degrees cooler than other cities, without the humidity factor.”