Direct flights from the UAE to the historical destination of AlUla in Saudi Arabia launched at the weekend, opening up one of the Gulf’s most mysterious and untouched destinations, dubbed “the world’s largest living museum”.
Carrying about 80 passengers, including media, dignitaries and Emirati influencers, Flynas's inaugural flight XY219 departed from Dubai International Airport's Terminal 1 at 11.30am on Friday and touched down in AlUla at 1.40pm. There will be three direct flights a week between Dubai and AlUla.
The area’s Hegra, made up of Nabatean rock formations, offers a glimpse of history hard to find in the region and has been granted Unesco World Heritage status. More than 110 well-preserved tombs, ancient inscriptions and carvings give visitors an insight into a bygone era in the country’s dramatic orange and red-hued desert landscape.
Features such as the giant geological Elephant Rock formation have also been tempting visitors to the area in recent years, but accessibility has been a challenge, with travellers having to drive long distances from the kingdom’s major airports to reach the remote region. More than seven hours from Jeddah and 10 hours from Riyadh, AlUla has been an isolated adventure until now.
The new three-hour flight from Dubai with Flynas offers international visitors a taste of this untouched destination, where they can also indulge in experiences such as dining at local farms and learning about ancient rock art.
Roman influence is apparent at AlUla in the form of defensive walls, gates and towers that once encircled the city. Pilgrims, travellers and permanent settlers have passed through and congregated in AlUla’s Old Town since it was first inhabited before 12th century.
Not yet ready for mass tourism, the area has only a handful of hotels, as well as camping spots for the more intrepid visitors, but independent travel is not advised. There are limited modes of transport available and group travel is still the recommended way of seeing the area.
AlUla has been establishing itself not only as a historical destination in recent years, but also a cultural one, with a host of international artists performing at outdoor concerts such as the Winter at Tantora festival and at the majestic mirrored Maraya Concert Hall, where Andrea Bocelli recently performed a sold-out gig.
The concert hall is also home to Michelin-lauded chef Jason Atherton's newest restaurant, Maraya Social. Located on the rooftop of the futuristic structure, it is open for dinner from Wednesday to Saturday. Its menu takes inspiration from AlUla with produce sourced from local farms, “all served up in Atherton's signature style”.
Flynas is a no-frills airline, but the three-hour flight offers the thrill of finally uncovering the mystical area. The airline plans to operate three flights a week, from Thursday to Saturday.
Other newly launched routes from Flynas include two weekly flights that will connect Kuwait to the recently upgraded AlUla Airport, which in February gained “international” status. Though it now has capacity for 400,000 passengers a year, it is more of a large room than an airport with a small team of staff, meaning things can take time and services are limited.
On the accommodation front, international brand Habitas opened a boutique eco-resort in AlUla two weeks ago, offering an array of cultural and wellness programmes for its visitors. The villa property is set amid the dramatic rocky landscape.
A Banyan Tree property will open in 2022 and the Hegra railway station, a relic from the Ottoman era, will be converted into a boutique hotel.
The Royal Commission for AlUla has big plans for the area. The Journey Through Time master plan launched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, chairman of the commission, lays out plans to welcome two million visitors annually by 2035.
In February, AlUla Arts festival will pay homage to the destination’s position on the Silk Road, bringing together arts and culture from around the world, and in March, the cultural oasis will launch its inaugural AlUla Wellness Festival.
With most locations within AlUla a mere 20 to 30 minutes’ drive apart, it is easy to spend a long weekend here. There is a unique sense of authenticity, with local residents, mostly women, acting as guides. It is a wonderful sight to see the boon to the local job market that tourism is now offering to both men and women alike.
The area is also ripe for outdoor adventure. With hot air ballooning, zip-lining, stargazing, cycling and hiking on offer, it is currently the best time of year to explore.
Reflective of the recent reforms in the country, women can visit AlUla without wearing either the abaya or hijab; modest western clothing is enough.
While it might not quite compare to Jordan’s Petra, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, AlUla does offer a powerful doorway into the kingdom and will appeal to travellers of all types.
Visitors must show both a PCR negative status as well as vaccination status, registering online and downloading the local Covid-19 app. A negative PCR test is also necessary for non-Emiratis returning to the UAE. Visas can be bought easily and quickly online for many nationalities.
More information is available at experiencealula.com