Local residents in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia say cultural festival has 'changed everything'

With Winter at Tantora in full swing in the historic city of Al Ula, we find out how this festival has revitalised the local community

The historical Saudi Arabian city of Al Ula is experiencing a tourism boom, courtesy of the Winter at Tantora festival. The event runs until February 8, with the likes of the Greek start Yanni ­performing at the desert location, which is also home to the ­archaeological marvel and Unesco World Heritage Site, Madain Saleh. Up to 2,000 ­visitors have attended the ­festival each weekend to enjoy the weekly concerts and ­cultural events being held in the breathtaking landscape.

A glimmering new glass performance space has been located amid the stunning sand-stone mountains, and the festival has already witnessed sets by Lebanese chanteuse Majida Rumi and the region's first hologram concert, with a digitised version of the late Egyptian singer Umm ­Kulthum – who died in 1975 – ­performing some of her greatest hits alongside a live orchestra.

This Friday, Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli will take to the stage.

Guides bring local flavour to festival

The main star of the ­festival is the city itself, ­however. Dozens of local Saudi Arabian guides, most of whom were born and raised in Al Ula, have been deployed to share their experiences and ­knowledge of growing up in a city steeped in religion and history.

"Ever since the ­leadership ­decided to focus on ­promoting Al Ula as a tourism ­destination, I would say that everything has changed and there is a real energy here," says Abdul Razzag Al Enze, a tour guide in Madain Saleh.

Al Enze, 28, was leading a team of Arab social media personalities on a tour of the now-defunct Hijaz ­Railway ­Station, formerly part of an epic train route built by the Ottomans that linked ­Damascus to Madinah. "The route is 1,300 kilometres in total," he explains. "And the whole idea was for it to reach Makkah in order to make transport for pilgrims doing Hajj and Umrah easier."

Speaking to The National at the end of the tour, Al Enze is beaming with pride. He says that ever since resources have poured in from government authorities, particularly the Royal Commission Al Ula (RCA), Al Enze has been able to supplement his income as a hotel receptionist by ­leading nearly a dozen group and ­private tours each weekend.

"I am in my element when I am a tour guide and I hope to do this full-time," he says. "I have always loved learning about this city, my home, and sharing it with visitors and people from other cultures."

The future generation

This approach to promoting Al Ula as a tourist destination is set to continue. Al Enze is also involved training students from Al Ula's Taibah University to become guides in the future.

Shadowing him on the tours were 20-year-old tourism and culture students Khalid and Mohammed, who also come from the local Al Enze tribe. They are both volunteering for the full duration of the festival. "We are getting that ­practical knowledge away from the classroom," Khalid says of the experience.

Mohammed is eager to learn as much as he can during his training and add it to his local knowledge so that he can deliver the best tours ­possible in future. "Not many ­people came here before to our ­communities," he says. "We are generally very hospitable people, but it is also ­important to get that extra knowledge to help us in providing the best and most accurate information.

“We are tour guides of the future. We want to be as good and even better guides than this generation.”

A tight-knit community

It is not only the guides ­revelling in this newfound attention for Al Ula. The city's cultural personalities have also become involved with sharing their own talents and experiences of growing up among the mountains.

The festival’s official ­market, which is located in the rustic downtown district, is full of small stalls where local ­artisans come to sell ­handmade items that range from straw bags and ­paintings to wedding thobes. We meet Khalifa as he ­performs the rabab – a ­traditional stringed ­instrument – on a small ­makeshift stage.

“The ­community here is cultured and we love the arts,” he explains. “I myself have played the rabab ever since I can ­remember and to say I love it is too simple.

"This festival is great ­because it shows the ­beauty of the community, while ­showing a different side of Saudi ­Arabia. People are ­saying it is ­changing and ­people here now love culture and the arts but, you know, that has always been there."

Khalifa’s love for his ­instrument is matched by ­Abdulrahman Homeed’s ­passion for collecting
old ­radios.

Representing his own ­museum in Al Ula, Abo Ra'ed Museum for Heritage, ­Homeed is showcasing his range of vintage radios, a ­collection that includes old Sanyo ­three-in-one sets ­(speakers, cassettes and vinyl players) and what he calls the "Russian Radio".

Holding the grey, sturdy ­box-shaped set, Homeed recalls the important role it played for Al Ula residents during the First Gulf War in 1990. "We called this 'Radio ­Russiya', because it gave us a wide range of news, and with the twist of the knob, here, we could hear different radio ­stations from around the world to get a better ­understanding of what was happening," he says.

"People would gather around these radios and listen and ­discuss. Now I am here discussing the radio and the people of Al Ula with you, years later. "It's a blessed and ­wonderful thing, yes?"

For more information, visit www.winterattantora.com

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