Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Sustainability and adventure at the forefront of Destination AlUla

When Saudi Arabia opened their doors to tourism, one of nature’s hidden treasures was revealed to the world – a 7000-year old cultural and heritage site, untouched by nature and a tourism destination like no other was born. Located in north-western region of Saudi Arabia, AlUla is home to the Kingdom’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra – a Nabatean site featuring tombs dating back to the first century B.C.E. Known for its natural rock formations and canyons, the destination has been renewed to offer tourists curated experiences in art, culture, music, nature, wellness, adventure and gastronomy.  

ArabiaTravelNews.com spoke with Phillip Jones, chief destination management and marketing officer, at the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) who says, the destination is fast becoming a must-visit location for travelers from across the globe.

“AlUla is one of the most majestic, most enchanting natural settings I have ever known and experienced. Here you will find some of nature’s most beautifully preserved tombs and natural rock formations in the middle of a desert, but also a massive oasis of a over million date palms amidst it. These have co-existed for over 7,000 years and have been important destinations on the ancient caravan routes of myrrh and incenses, which crossed Arabia from the South. It is also the birthplace of Arabic writing and home to some extraordinary natural and human cultural heritage,” said Jones.

“Today, thanks to the efforts of the Royal Commission for AlUla and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, His Highness Mohammed bin Salman’s vision for Saudi Arabia, AlUla – a living museum,  is open for tourists with a passion for history, architecture, and archeology.

“While we begin this new tourism journey with AlUla, it is also extremely important for us to ensure that the project and our plans upholds our commitment in preserving the history and the natural environment as it is.”

“We want to position AlUla as a premium, luxury destination, to ensure we maintain exclusivity. Our goal is to preserve this place for the next 7,000 years and more – for the future generations to witness and experience as well.  Keeping this in mind, we have limited the number of hotel rooms too. Currently, we have about 500 hotels rooms and will add another 500 rooms in the course of the next couple of years,” he added.

Often compared to another popular Nabatean site- Petra, AlUla was off-limits to tourists and archaeologists for many years. Today, they have the opportunity to marvel at the 131 rock tombs steeped in history of the region. The development, which is part of Saudi Arabia’s vision to emerge as the leading global tourism destination, is framed with sustainability and that remains at the core of everything they do.

“We are very conscious of the impact tourism will bring to AlUla and so remain deeply committed to sustainability. We are not a mass tourism destinations and we are not equipped to handle mass tourism either. At AlUla, the focus will always be on delivering bespoke, individual experiences for the curious travelers – from within Saudi Arabia and globally,” he added.

“Our guests will experience walking trails in 7000-year old caves and witness tombs, structures and carvings from 1,000 years ago; go star-gazing in the middle of the desert or from up in the mountains, all without the hustle and bustle of crowds and the tourist rush. To build the city without disturbing nature’s architecture, is nothing short of a miracle and we are committed.”

AlUla will also lead the way to futuristic, sustainable innovations and practices and their new, zero-emission mobility, fully autonomous pod vehicle service is testament to that. The innovative pilot scheme provides passengers with a quick and easy link to AlUla’s Old Town and will be further extended to new locations – including Dadan, Hegra and AlJadidah later in 2022.

Finding like-minded sustainable partners is also key on their journey to sustainability and AlUla is particular about working with partners that share the same goal. The destination is home to resorts by brands like Habitas, the Banyan Tree, Aman Hotels as well as the planned Jean Nouvel’s resort which will be built into the rocks of AlUla, all of who have embraced sustainability at their core.

“These brands already have a lot of focus on sustainability so that is half the job done. We are associating ourselves with brands that have similar values. Our aim is to ensure that our developments at AlUla fit seamlessly into the natural environment and not obstruct it in any way. We are committed to protect these natural habitats for the future generations,” added Jones.

Besides marveling at some of nature’s finest works, visitors will also have the opportunity to visit local Bedouin camps and the restored old town of AlUla, and witness first hand, the work of conservation that have been central to the AlUla vision.

AlUla has also emerged as a destination for music, cultural and equestrian events. The destinations is currently holding the AlUla Moments– four festivals that celebrate arts, nature and wellness. This includes the AlUla Arts Festival – where contemporary art created by Saudi artists will be on focus; AlUla Skies – when tourists will have the chance to float over the Hegra in a hot air balloon or go on a star-gazing tour titled “Constellations”, and the AlUla Wellness Festival – which will focus on the well-being of the mind and body, including yoga, meditation, mindful practices, and an exhibition that will use space, light and sound to provoke the senses.

The popular Desert X AlUla 2022 will also return to AlUla for its second edition. These activations, besides attracting visitors, play an important role in giving Saudi and international artists an opportunity to showcase their work to a global audience and experience the thrill of showcasing their work in AlUla’s incredible desert landscape. The current season of events will have a grand finale with a Live concert by Seal and Lionel Richie .

“This year we will also add 10 new fine-dining restaurants to complement our other experiences. These include Annabels AlUla of Annabels, London, Circolo Italian, Le Maschou and Le Moulin Bakery known for its french authenticity as well as some traditional Saudi cuisine at Merkaz.

These restaurants, and some of the activations that we’ve had, whether adventure, art or wellness, are among those ‘expected luxury experiences’, visitors expect when they visit a destination of this caliber,” said Jones.

AlUla has also seen interest from the MICE market. A key feature at AlUla is Maraya, a state-of-the-art events center, in the desert canyon of Ashar Valley. The structure, which is covered in 9,740 mirrored panels reflects on AlUla’s beauty, making it the largest mirrored building in the world, according to Guinness World Records.

“Maraya, our venue for special events, have already had 53 MICE events in the last three months. The area is very popular for product launches, small board meetings and conferences. We can accommodate up to 500 people in Maraya, which allows for some exclusivity,” said Jones.

Looking ahead, Jones adds that there will be a lot of investment towards infrastructure and flight connectivity to ensure visitors have easier access to AlUla.

“The launch of the flyDubai flight will facilitate visitors from the UAE and further from flyDubai’s network, expanding our source markets. AlUla’s ancient history and culture is a perfect match for UAE’s cosmopolitan atmosphere, thus giving visitors a taste of two worlds. With our incredible line-up of events, concerts and festivals, we expect this to be a popular route.”

Currently there are direct flights to AlUla on Saudia Airlines from and to Paris (operating until March 27, 2022), three weekly flights on flynas between AlUla & Dubai, Dammam and Jeddah and four weekly flights between AlUla & Riyadh. Flydubai offers twice weekly flights between Dubai and AlUla.

“Since we reopened in October 2021, we have been actively catering to the regional Saudi market, where there was a lot of pent up demand post Covid. They were our core source markets and now with the easing of restrictions and our new flights, we look forward to welcoming more international visitors too,” he added.

“Today over 12 per cent of our visitors are from Europe and an overall 24 per cent from the GCC, Europe and United States markets. This is very exciting for us.”

We currently have 10 international offices that represent us in all major markets including US, Australia, Germany, France, China, India and more. We have identified luxury travelers, adventure nomads and voyagers and there are 9 million of them right now, so our pipeline is nearly full and we just need to continue to alleviate and make our guests aware of all the activities and activations that are ongoing and upcoming,” added Jones.

“This year, AlUla expects to welcome 180,000 visitors. We have a target of 250,000 visitors for next year and hope to welcome 1 million visitors by 2025 and 2 million by 2030. By default, we will always remain an exclusive destination,” said Jones.

AlUla has also been working closely with the local community who have embraced the new development and the opening of tourism in Saudi Arabia. It has been an empowering experience, especially for the women in Saudi Arabia who have become the face of AlUla and Saudi Arabia.

“From tour and museum guides, chefs, entrepreneurs and archeology experts, you will see a lot of local young men and women, working together to put AlUla on the tourism map.  We are also actively conducting training and language programs for them and empowering them with the skill sets, as Saudi opens up to global tourism,” said Jones.

For the rest of the year Jones adds that the focus will be on various new festivals and other activations. “We hope to launch year-round festivals and this summer we will use our indoor spaces for broadway shows and cultural activities. We also hope to add more direct flight connections to AlUla from our core target markets,” he concluded.

When complete in 2035, AIUIa will truly take visitors on a ‘Journey through Time’ as visitors will take journey through its five districts, and travel from the past-Hegra Historial City to the future-AlUla Old Town, of this extraordinary land.

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