Winter at Tantora puts Saudi Arabia's AlUla back in the limelight

The festival's varied fare includes music, cultural events, traditional arts and desert polo

Winter at Tantora festival gets under way in Saudi Arabia

Winter at Tantora festival gets under way in Saudi Arabia
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Saudi Arabia's Winter at Tantora festival opened this month with a more-than-five-week programme of events ranging from a celebration of Arabic poetry to a desert polo tournament.

Launched in 2018, the festival now draws visitors from across the kingdom and the world and is credited by locals with helping to transform the ancient oasis city of AlUla, where it is held.

"The whole world is here," said AlUla resident Asrar Faisal, 27, at an opening night's performance in Al Jadidah, the city's new area, on December 21.

Called Shorfat Al Jadidah, the event featured singers and musicians of Egypt's Rouh Al Sharq choir performing in the street and from balconies.

The festival itself is named after the Tantora – a sundial at the eastern edge of AlUla's old town that was used to track the changing of seasons and regulate the distribution of water to farms.

The city in the eastern Madinah province was once part of a thriving trade route linking India and the Gulf region to the Levant and Europe, as well as a hub for Hajj caravans. The area is also home to Hegra, an ancient city that in 2008 was declared Saudi Arabia’s first Unesco World Heritage Site.

Winter at Tantora seeks to bring its rich past to life through performances of traditional music, dance and workshops featuring local handicrafts such as perfume-making, palm weaving and Islamic art.

Visitors to Winter at Tantora will also be able to enjoy experiences such as hot-air balloon rides and stargazing tours at the AlUla Skies Festival, as well as adventure sports. The third edition of Richard Mille Desert Polo – the first modern polo tournament set in a desert environment – is being held for the third time at the AlUla Equestrian Village from January 17-20.

For residents, AlUla's emergence as a tourist attraction has brought many welcome changes.

Ms Asrar said renovation work and the growth of commercial activity had transformed AlUla’s Old Town while creating more jobs and entertainment options for residents.

“My mother said she remembers not long ago there used to be one commercial store in the entire city and now the whole world is here,” she said.

“To see the changes and foreigners coming to our hometown to witness the beauty of AlUla feels great. AlUla is a city where one can walk into any neighbourhood and be welcomed by a family for a tea or meal. This is part of our hospitality and tradition.”

“We feel great to see you all come to our city," said Umm Ali, 57, who t the festival demonstrates the art of weaving palm leaves into fans, mats and other items.

Naifah Alanazi, 25, a nurse who was attending a Winter at Tantora performance for the first time despite living in AlUla, said she was surprised by the atmosphere.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “I drove past it and wanted to see it. It wasn’t like this even five years ago, now everything changed. People in the world know AlUla."

Winter at Tantora, which runs until January 27, is part of the AlUla Moments calendar of events that aims to make the area a year-round tourist destination.

The development of the ancient city and its archaeological sites is overseen by the Royal Commission for AlUla, chaired by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Updated: December 30, 2023, 5:27 AM