Culture meets adrenaline

AlUla, a place of extraordinary natural and human history, will be established as a boutique heritage and cultural destination with a long list of adventure opportunities

“AlUla has been home to 200,000 years of human history and five successive civilizations have flourished here over the last 7,000 years. In terms of its heritage value, AlUla is going to rival the best of them – be it Machu Picchu or closer to home, Egypt and Petra,” Melanie de Souza, Executive Director Marketing at RCU, tells TTN in an interview.

“We aim to establish AlUla as a boutique heritage and cultural destination but if you look at the long list of adventure opportunities that we have on offer for all fitness levels, including the adrenaline junkie, it's quite an impressive list. We have everything from hiking trails and ziplines to buggy rides, and what I strongly recommend, our stargazing experience.”

AlUla is the first of the significant Saudi Vision 2030 initiatives to welcome visitors, having re-opened key heritage sites to visitors in October 2020 as a new year-round offer.

“We have very big development plans in terms of building infrastructure, hotels that are coming online over the next seven years and a lot of cultural assets, including museums and galleries that are yet to be commenced but what we already have on the ground is sufficient for a few nights’ stay. And while the acceleration of rooms is the short-term focus, I would say we are way ahead of the other giga projects to be ready for the market.”

Currently, the hotel product on offer includes a tented resort called Ashar, available this February and March, after which it will be redeveloped and relaunched, as a Banyan tree property in the fall of 2021. There’s a five star hotel called Shaden Desert Resort, which, though not hyper luxury, offers proximity to a majestic, rocky landscape and a choice of restaurants. A mid-market product called Sahari is also functional. “And then we have the recreational vehicles, beautifully fitted out with kitchens and toilets, and offer the perfect experience for those who want to feel at one with the landscape and wake up to the stars.”

Habitas, which has properties in Tulum and Nicaragua, is expected to come online in July with a 100-key property targeting millennials. “Habitas has great brand values and is all about sustainability – they really understand what their audience wants. I think Habitas is going to do a magnificent job, not just in terms of accommodation, but supplementary activities and entertainment.”

“With a little bit of luck, next year we might have a hotel at Hegra that is a serious brand. Apart from these, we have some hyper luxury properties coming online in 2023. So we have three Aman properties and an amazing Jean Novel-designed resort, which is expected to be a stunning architectural piece.”

Throughout the campaign, AlUla has partnered with national carrier Saudia, and the partnership extends to selling holiday packages through Saudia Holidays to connecting the destination to the country through its local airport, which also includes a VIP Terminal. Currently, the airport connects Riyadh and Jeddah, with plans in place to start Dammam soon. Once the borders reopen and markets recover, RCU hopes that direct international flights will commence. “We certainly have the capital infrastructure to facilitate that.”

Until the Saudi borders remain closed to international travellers (March 31), this campaign targets domestic travellers to come and visit. When the borders open, the intention is to attract the wider GCC countries as well. “The travel landscape has been irreversibly altered, but as travel slowly resumes, research tells us people will be looking for meaningful travel, vast open spaces and close to nature experiences. AlUla is well-positioned in the domestic market for all of those reasons and internationally as a new and significant boutique heritage and culture destination,” says de Souza.

“We are already receiving a lot of interest from international travellers excited to explore a new destination with such history including ancient civilisations from the Dadanites to the Nabataeans and the Romans.”

It is hoped that the campaign will help to achieve RCU’s visitor projections of 90,000 for 2021 and 130,000 for 2022.De Souza, who worked with Visit Victoria until January 2019, says “One of the things that really drew me to this job is that AlUla appeals to meaningful, purposeful travel. The values and principles that RCU is taking to the development of the infrastructure, to sustainability, to ensuring that anything that we do lends itself beautifully to its landscape, means that this can be a case study for tourism for other destinations in the future.”


AlUla – what you can do

AlUla includes a lush oasis valley, towering sandstone mountains and ancient cultural heritage sites dating back thousands of years to when the Lihyan and Nabataean kingdoms reigned.

From the heritage perspective, here are some nuggets that RCU currently offers visitors: a day tour of Hegra, including the tomb of Lihyan, son of Kuza, and hop-on hop-off transportation at four key areas and option for Rawi tour. Archaeology for Everyone and Hegra handicraft pavilion have been added this December.

From an adventure perspective, Adventure Hiking Trail by Husaak includes an energising trek though the stunning Madakheel landscape; AlUla Fresh is a farm experience including fruit picking, tours and seed planting; Stargazing by Husaak takes place in a traditional Bedouin camp at AlGharameel with a stargazing expert. Apart from these dune buggies, cycling trails; Bike Park by Warrior, horse trails, and Zipline by Warrior (at Harrat Mountain).