Saudi Arabia might be touting plenty of futuristic developments as it opens itself up to tourism with its recently announced new visas, but in terms of cultural offerings, Al Ula is its crown jewel.
Home to Madain Saleh, the first site in the kingdom to be recognised by Unesco and a location often compared to Jordan's Petra, Al Ula is understandably being placed front and centre of the drive for tourists seeking history and culture. Located 300 kilometres north of Medina, Al Ula was historically located on the Incense route and was an important trading hub for the ancient Lihyanites. These days, it’s scattered with ancient ruins, several-thousand-year-old tombs, date farms and an incredible landscape akin to Wadi Rum in Jordan.
As high-end travellers jet in to explore the luxury offerings of the futuristic city of Neom or the untapped waters of the Red Sea Project, the kingdom is hoping Al Ula and its surrounds will cater to those wanting to experience authentic Arabian history, too. But this means there’s a lot of work to be done to build up the surrounding area, which is, at present, relatively sparse in terms of tourism infrastructure. There are also concerns centred around preserving the authenticity of the place, which currently allows a plucky tourist an almost exclusive experience – not a tour bus or selfie stick in sight. Just don’t go expecting much at the lower end just yet.
"[This will be] a luxury, premium destination," Amr Al Madani, chief executive for the Royal Commission for Al Ula, tells The National.
“We want people who have been around the world and are looking for something they haven’t seen.”
The end result will bring high-end resorts and restaurants, a new cultural manifesto, and ticketing kiosks and amenities to Al Ula. While some are worried this might disturb the magic of this place, Al Madani vows that the locals are ready to embrace a steady stream of foreigners.
“You have to have lived in Saudi Arabia to know what it means, you have to have grown up here,” he says.
“How can you have all of this treasure and sit with it and make it difficult for people to come? It’s like having a nice backyard and having no one to come.”
The National went to scout out the area as it is now, and to discover what's planned for its future. Here's our ultimate guide.
Are the sites in Al Ula open?
Currently, the historic sites of the area are only open for three months of the year during the Winter at Tantura festival. But come October 2020, they will be open year-round.
What can you do in Al Ula?
The number-one site to check out is undoubtedly the Unesco-listed southernmost settlement of the Nabatean kingdom, also known as Hegra. Madain Saleh was the kingdom’s second largest settlement after Petra, and shares the same rock-carved architecture. Though smaller in scale, Madain Saleh is striking in its location; whereas Petra is located deep into the Siq, a maze of cavernous rocky alleys, Madain Saleh is carved into large rocky outcrops strewn throughout a sparse desert. The tombs are currently open to be wandered into (watch out for the hornets' nests).
There are 131 rock-cut monumental tombs in total, though your guide will likely show you about a dozen – the most impressive being the poster child of the area, a large tomb carved into a monolithic rock, standing off on its own. The “meeting place” cave also has some ahead-of-its-time acoustics and water collection systems that deserve special mention.
Al Madani sums it up nicely: “Think of it as Petra plus,” he says.
This is an artfully formed outcrop that the influencers will go crazy for. With some creative license, the soaring structure resembles an elephant with a long trunk (yes, its draw is basically having a large, oval-shaped hole cut from its middle). Head there at sunset, and it makes for a striking picture opportunity, as the rock is illuminated by vibrant colours.
Ikmah, the library of Lihyan
The Lihyanite inscriptions carved into a rock face have come to be known as an “open library”, which has provided crucial information about the culture, beliefs and way of life of this ancient kingdom. The inscriptions have helped historians understand the political, economic, religious and social positions of the tribe.
The ruins of the ancient Dadanian kingdom’s metropolis are only starting to be uncovered and truly understood. The ruins of the temple were uncovered recently while building a new road.
These sprawling mud-brick houses were inhabited as recently as six years ago, but look as though they were vacated hundreds of years earlier. Climb the 190 steps to the top of the nearby fort for a good outlook.
There are estimated to be one million palm fronds in this area. It makes for a pretty backdrop to the towering monoliths, but an enterprising local might also offer you a look through the trees or a sample of some of the best dates in the country.
Where will you be able to stay in Al Ula?
Currently, there are only a couple of tent-style resorts and a few makeshift hotels in the area, the most popular being the Shaden Resort and the Sahary Al Ula Resort. However, the Shaden is still under construction and isn’t fully functional. When it is completed, it will comprise 120 rooms. More accommodation options will be rising up in Al Ula imminently, however, with luxury hotel group Aman already getting started. The day after the new widescale tourist visas were introduced, the Aman architects were already in Al Ula scoping the place out.
By the end of phase one of the development of Al Ula in 2023, Al Madani says the plan is to have 1,000 “qualified keys” ready for incoming guests. This basically translates to 1,000 hotel rooms, as he expects other accommodation options, such as Airbnbs, to have popped up by then, too.
By 2035, Al Ula shuld have up to 9,000 rooms to accommodate the expected two million tourists per year.
The eco-friendly Aman resort is expected to be the first to open, followed by two more from the brand by 2023. One resort will be a luxury tented camp, another will be close to Al Ula's heritage areas and the third property is being designed as a unique interpretation of a desert ranch-style hotel.
Don’t come here expecting a hostel as that is not the traveller Al Ula is going after.
What will the development of the area look like?
Al Madani says Al Ula will be home to “the largest living museum in the world” – this means galleries, museums and walking trails to all of its sites. Multiple archaeology missions are also in town working on the locations, including French, German and Australian groups. On Monday, October 7, the Royal Commission will present new archaeological findings of the various digs, as well as findings on how they were made, during an exhibition in Paris, where they will also launch Al Ula's cultural manifesto.
This aims to control the area’s development, guided by 10 principles that include sustainability, the local community and water. It will also dictate building codes and crowd management.
“We will not welcome developers who want to do things the old way,” Al Madani says.
How will the sites of Madain Saleh and Al Ula be maintained?
This has presented a challenge, Al Madani admits, but the Royal Commission of Al Ula was set up in 2018 for this very reason. This has meant planning framework for a “light footprint”, and ensuring that tourism will “add to the sustainability of this place”.
“It’s about more than tourism," says Al Madani. "It’s about continuing on our understanding of humanity."
How long should you spend here?
Al Madani suggests taking four days to explore Al Ula and the surrounding area, too, including the Red Sea.
Can solo travellers come here, or do you need to book a tour?
“You can just show up but we would encourage most people to book a tour so you can get the most out of your experience,” Al Madani says.
How has the development included the local community?
The Royal Commission has created one of the largest scholarship programmes in the world in order to train locals to tend to Al Ula, according to Al Madani. Five hundred people are currently studying tourism management and hospitality in locations across the world, after which they will return to work in the tourism industry of Al Ula. The locals were also overseeing the restoration of the Old City.
Our tour guide, Suleiman Aljuwayhal, was particularly excited about the incoming visitors.
He had studied English translation at a university in Riyadh before becoming a tour guide, and had been showing people around Al Ula for about three months.
“I love it. I love it seeing the look on people’s faces when they see these places. And we have so much for people to see.”
Do women need to wear an abaya?
Like much of the rest of Saudi Arabia following the kingdom's visa announcement, the short answer is no, but it will pay to be respectful.
“There’s a special character here, it’s always been a trading town and an accepting community,” Al Madani says.
He is keen to issue reassurances to potential visitors that the developers of the area are doing everything they can to ensure Al Ula is transformed respectfully and with sustainable practices in mind. Al Madani acknowledges that it will be a high-end destination, but is adamant nonetheless that “from the time that you land you will be exported back in time”.
“We don’t want mass tourism… there will be no rushing in of big buses. [But] tourism shouldn’t always be seen as bad, responsible tourism creates economic value and openness of the place.”