New rules to ensure Saudi's 'crown jewel' remains unspoiled

Officials hope two million people a year will visit Al Ula as part of Kingdom's tourism drive

Powered by automated translation

Ambitious plans are under way to transform Al Ula in Saudi Arabia into the world's number one heritage tourist destination within 15 years.

But to accommodate such rapid development, and the potential for millions of visitors each year, fine-tuning the project’s aesthetics is critical to its success.

Today, those behind the initiative are adamant the substantial work ahead will not detract from the stunning landscapes and centuries-old historic sites.

They are drawing up a new planning system, ensuring the hotels, businesses and homes that will eventually form part of the development perfectly compliment the Unesco World Heritage Site.

It's not just the nature. We also have this amazing history of humankind interacting with the place.

"Everybody is amazed to discover there is such a pearl which is unknown," Francesca Arici, the site's chief planning officer, told The National.

“Everybody knows Petra but nobody knows Al Ula and I see a lot of excitement when people discover it.

“I was in Oman and decided to take on this job in Saudi Arabia. I didn’t know what to expect.

"The first thing I did was I went to Al Ula and stayed in a resort in a canyon. In the morning I woke up, saw this canyon, and thought ‘I will not miss Oman’, and Oman is an amazing place.

“I thought ‘wow, it’s even more beautiful’. I was amazed.”

Al Ula, which has been described as “Petra plus”, is seen as the crown jewel in Saudi Arabia’s embryonic tourism industry.

It features majestic rock-hewn tombs and 2,000-year-old stone carvings by the Nabateans, the pre-Islamic Arab people that also built Petra in neighbouring Jordan.

Like many people, Ms Arici had not heard of the site until she took on her role in the country in 2018.

Now, her task is to ensure any new-builds needed to help the area meet its potential remain sympathetic to their surroundings.

General view of al-Ula city, Saudi Arabia, February 1, 2020. Picture taken February 1, 2020. REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri

This means no high-rise hotels or tower blocks, with any major developments being kept well away from the most important sites.

Archaeologists will also be integral to the work, with experts on hand to ensure any artifacts uncovered by the build are not lost or damaged.

The Royal Commission for Al Ula, established in 2017, has been set up to oversee the changes.

Among its initiatives is a master planning strategy that sets out 12 principles designed to promote sustainable economic growth that also protects cultural antiquities.

“We are developing a system that is targeted mainly at protecting our cultural landscapes in such a way that we allow development but do not spoil our amazing landscapes,” Ms Arici said.

“It’s not just the nature. We also have this amazing history of humankind interacting with the place.

“We need beds, we need to give people a place to sleep if we want them to come. But we are looking for the right way to develop, which is not the case everywhere.

“I’m very proud to be on the project, it’s really unique. We’re setting up a planning system from scratch, learning from other global planning systems, not to make the same mistakes.

“We don’t want to just be forbidding things, but to give a set of rules that allow development in the right way.”

Al Ula is being exhibited at the ongoing World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi, where it is seeking to drum up interest from international delegates.

Among developments are an expansion to its existing airport, which is likely to see the introduction of direct flights from the UAE in the years to come.

Visitors currently can fly to Medina, which is around 300km south of Al Ula, and drive there in around three hours.

Alternatively, there are connecting flights from Riyadh, taking around 90 minutes.

Today, the historic sites of the area are only open for three months of the year during the Winter at Tantora festival. But by October this year, they will be open year-round.

“For 90 per cent of people who have come to our booth, their number one question is how do we get to Al Ula,” said Saad Al Matrafi, a spokesman for the Royal Commission for Al Ula. “People are very interested.

“A lot of people have heard of it but don’t know where it is. By 2035, we want to reach two million visitors [per year] to Al Ula so we need to be ready for that.

“We plan to have Al Ula as the number one tourism heritage destination in the world. That is our dream.”