Over the past few years, Saudi Arabia has transformed into a global tourist destination. Opening up to visitors from around the world and revealing beautiful destinations from around its land, many of which were relatively unknown to those on the outside. One of the destinations putting The Kingdom on the map is AlUla. This unique region combines heritage and luxury, offering visitors a truly unique experience.
The region compasses more than 200,000 years of unexplored human history, including the Nabataean city of Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site; the ancient North Arabian Dadanite and Lihyanite Kingdoms, whose scripts contributed to the evolution of the Arabic language; and AlUla Old Town, a stopping point for pilgrims from 1100CE. Today, AlUla is a living museum of preserved tombs, sandstone outcrops, historic developments and monuments combined with luxury hotels, soon-to-open museums and exciting experiences for visitors.
As the latest stage of the development begins, we talked to Phillip Jones, Chief Tourism Officer for the Royal Commission for AlUla, to find out more about the future of this dream destination.
Tell us about what your role as Chief Tourism Officer entails.
As the Chief Tourism Officer for the Royal Commission for AlUla my primary responsibility is to strategically plan and execute tourism initiatives that position AlUla as a premier luxury heritage boutique destination. We are dedicated to finding the perfect balance between embracing modernity and preserving AlUla’s heritage, which spans an impressive 200,000 years of human history.
In essence, our strategic planning and execution revolve around creating an unforgettable journey for visitors while honouring AlUla’s rich heritage and preserving its natural beauty. We believe that AlUla is a true gem that deserves global recognition, and we are committed to showcasing its exceptional offerings to the world.
We know you have been with RCU for a few years now – tell us how the awareness and offering of the destination has evolved since you joined.
Since I arrived at the Royal Commission for AlUla in the summer of 2019, we have witnessed remarkable organic growth in terms of both regional and global awareness. In the domestic market, we have observed a notable surge in awareness among affluent consumers, resulting in an impressive brand recognition rate of 72% for AlUla. Internationally, our efforts have also borne fruit. In our top-tier markets across Europe, Asia-Pacific, and the US, awareness levels have reached 29% – a trend that looks set to continue.
Growth is also being witnessed in the volume of visitors coming to AlUla. In 2022, AlUla welcomed 185,000 visitors, which is projected to increase to around 230,000 by the end of this year. Looking ahead, we can expect to hit the milestone of over one million visitors by 2030.
As global recognition of AlUla as a must-visit destination continues to increase, we are laser-focused on the balance of light-touch tourism experiences and our target to welcome two million visitors annually by 2035 – without succumbing to over-tourism.
What is your current focus and direction for the future of the region?
Overall, our approach centres around an integrated and responsible vision for tourism development, with a strong focus on sustainable practices and the preservation of cultural heritage. At the same time, we are committed to enriching the lives of local communities through job creation, increasing quality of life, and promoting well-being – for today’s population and for generations to come.
As a part of this, our aim is to set a global gold standard for sustainable tourism in AlUla. From responsible waste management to eco-friendly transportation options, we prioritize environmental stewardship to ensure a positive and enduring impact on AlUla’s pristine landscapes.
Additionally, it is of high importance for us to establish our presence and build meaningful relationships with international travel trade partners in key source markets. To date, we have worked hard to establish the value and significance of the destination through leveraging a multi-layered program targeting our diverse audiences. We are currently working on an exciting new campaign that will communicate the overarching purpose of AlUla in the destination’s own authentic voice, which is set to roll out early next year.
How is the strategy at AlUla following the focus of Saudi Vision 2030?
The development of AlUla as a tourism destination directly supports the goals of Saudi Vision 2030, particularly the target of increasing the contribution of tourism to Saudi Arabia’s GDP from 3% to 10% by 2030. AlUla is marketed as an exceptional cultural and historical destination, complementing, and diversifying the country’s existing tourism offerings.
By boosting tourism, AlUla plays a significant role in the economic diversification efforts of Saudi Arabia, reducing dependence on oil. The development plan for AlUla encompasses the creation of 38,000 new jobs, contributing SAR 120 billion (USD 32 billion) to the Kingdom’s GDP, and aiming to increase AlUla’s population to 130,000 by 2035.
Preservation and promotion of AlUla’s cultural and natural heritage are in full alignment with the cultural goals of Vision 2030, which seek to highlight and promote the history and heritage of the Kingdom. AlUla’s commitment to becoming a global gold standard for sustainable tourism reflects Saudi Arabia’s broader national sustainability goals, further underlining the synergy between AlUla’s development and Vision 2030.
The development of AlUla also enhances the quality of life for both Saudi citizens and visitors. The expansion of wellness, sports, adventure, and arts offerings in the region aligns with Vision 2030’s aim to improve the overall quality of life, providing diverse and enriching experiences for residents and tourists alike.
In addition, AlUla’s emphasis on promoting art and culture, exemplified by projects such as the AlUla Artist Residency, Madrasat Addeera, and the AlUla Arts Festival, contributes directly to Vision 2030’s cultural goals. These initiatives support the growth of the creative sector in the Kingdom, fostering artistic expression and nurturing talent.
Can you share some of the tools and strategies that have been put in place to increase tourism and draw to AlUla?
Authenticity is central to AlUla’s appeal, in line with the growing preference among travellers for unique and undiscovered destinations that offer exclusive and immersive experiences. With this in mind, we have strategically targeted niche markets that align with AlUla’s strengths, including heritage, culture, archaeology, nature, outdoor activities, sports like cycling, wellness, and events-driven travel.
To enhance the visitor experience and showcase AlUla’s treasures, we have embraced technology as a valuable tool. For instance, we have utilized virtual reality to bring remarkable experiences to life; last year, we pioneered the virtual exploration of a UNESCO World Heritage Site by creating an immersive 3D model of Hegra’s Tomb of Lihyan. This initiative opened up access to individuals everywhere to appreciate this remarkable historical treasure in the virtual realm.
Additionally, we recently launched the Experience AlUla app, designed to augment the user experience with comprehensive resources. Users can browse various attractions, book online, explore interactive maps and access all the information they need to plan their ideal itinerary – easily and seamlessly.
By leveraging technology and delivering immersive experiences, we aim to engage travelers at a deeper level, fostering a genuine connection with AlUla’s rich heritage and natural wonders. Our focus on authenticity, combined with innovative approaches, ensures that visitors have the opportunity to explore AlUla in a truly distinctive and memorable way.
Of course, the history of this area is very important – how do you maintain the cultural traditions and history but also ensure its relevance today?
AlUla’s rich cultural traditions and history are at the heart of its identity. We have deep respect for the past, as this is what not only shapes the present but guides future development. Our approach involves a seamless fusion of old and new, carefully curated to celebrate AlUla’s heritage while remaining relevant in the contemporary world. This harmonious combination of traditional and contemporary expressions showcases the diverse facets of AlUla’s cultural tapestry.
While embracing innovation and progress, we remain steadfast in our commitment to maintaining the integrity and authenticity of AlUla’s cultural traditions and intangible heritage – the customs, traditions, and genuine Saudi hospitality that make the AlUla experience truly exceptional. Preserving and promoting these elements provides a welcoming and immersive experience for visitors.
From engaging with the local community to savoring traditional cuisine and participating in cultural activities, guests can fully embrace the authentic essence of AlUla. We take great pride in inviting travelers from all over the world to experience the beauty, culture, and genuine hospitality that define our remarkable destination.
How is AlUla being presented to the rest of the world as a destination?
AlUla is positioned as a luxury boutique destination that harmoniously blends ancient heritage with modernity. It presents a wealth of cultural and natural wonders, inviting visitors to explore a thriving arts and culture scene, embark on exciting adventures, and marvel at the oasis and heritage sites. With a strong commitment to sustainable development, AlUla appeals to conscious travellers searching for authentic and meaningful experiences.
Our approach to promoting AlUla is multifaceted, focusing on continuous development to elevate its appeal and create unforgettable moments for visitors. We have meticulously curated a diverse range of offerings, spanning wellness, adventure, art, and sports, catering to a wide range of interests and captivating a broader audience. By consistently expanding and enhancing these areas, we ensure that AlUla remains a dynamic and immersive destination.
In terms of hospitality, there have been some exciting openings already – what else is in the pipeline concerning this?
We have joined forces with renowned global brands to provide our discerning visitors with premium, world-class experiences that are reshaping the hospitality landscape in AlUla and beyond. The two resorts in the Ashar Valley, Habitas AlUla and Banyan Tree AlUla are unique desert resorts offering the opportunity to wake up surrounded by the rocks and the desert in one of the most stunning locations in the world.
This year marked an important milestone as we commenced construction on the Sharaan Resort and International Summit Centre, an architectural marvel designed by the esteemed Jean Nouvel that will be carved into the face of a mountain in homage to the ingenuity of the Nabataeans.
In addition, we are currently developing the upscale eco-lodge known as Dar Tantora in AlUla Old Town. This distinctive lodge embraces sustainability by incorporating restored and repurposed historical mud-brick buildings using traditional materials and techniques. The fusion of heritage and contemporary comfort is set to deliver a truly unique and immersive experience in the vibrant Old Town precinct.
The AZULIK AlUla Resort is a stunning eco-luxury property that will be tucked into canyons near the area now known as Wadi AlFann, an ancient valley that will soon be home to large-scale permanent artworks in the landscape.
Slated to launch in 2027, the AZULIK resort will feature 76 luxury villas of six different varieties, spa, VIP club, welcome lounges, all-day dining, and a SFER IK museum. With flowing designs inspired by the natural ecosystem and surrounding sandstone cliffs, the resort’s undulating exteriors will utilize natural materials and fibers woven into several layers.
Another exciting venture on the horizon is the Chedi Hegra, which will be the first hotel located within Hegra. This remarkable establishment will allow guests to intimately connect with the monumental landscape and experience the splendor of this historic site like never before. Set to welcome its inaugural guests by Q4 2023, the heritage boutique hotel will offer 35 guest rooms, each offering a distinct connection to Hegra’s monumental landscape.
Looking ahead, we anticipate significant growth in AlUla’s hospitality sector. By the end of 2024, we project an increase in available accommodations to 1,128 keys, representing an impressive 93% surge from the inventory in 2022. This expansion will offer visitors an even wider range of options to choose from, ensuring their stay in AlUla is nothing short of exceptional.
Aside from hotels, what else can we expect to see arriving in the area in the coming years?
At AlUla, the seamless fusion of past and present touches everything we do. An excellent example of this blend is our two upcoming museums, which I believe will redefine the cultural landscape of AlUla.
The first, the Museum of the Incense Road, promises to take visitors on a journey through time, back to when the oasis city served as a crucial crossroad of civilizations. A crossroad of civilizations, the oasis city was a major way stop along the vital route that stretched from southern Arabia, north into Egypt and beyond. Not only did it bring prosperity to AlUla, but it fostered cultural exchanges that last to this day.
On the other hand, the Contemporary Art Museum will add a modern and artistic dimension to AlUla’s cultural landscape. As a highlight of the city’s artistic realm, this museum the museum will represent work from the Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and Eastern Mediterranean regions in its Three Seas Collection; a worldwide cross-section of immersive installations in its Continents Collection; and work that relates to the unique environment of AlUla and Wadi AlFann in its Desert Collection.
AlUla is increasingly claiming space on the global stage as a vibrant hub for arts and culture. This is set to intensify with the highly anticipated launch of Wadi AlFann (Valley of the Arts). A remarkable large-scale outdoor sculpture park set against the breathtaking backdrop of AlUla’s majestic sandstone cliffs and canyons, Wadi AlFann will be a unique showcase for esteemed local and international artists, including Ahmed Mater, Manal AlDowayan, James Turrell, Agnes Denes, and Michael Heizer.
Though these projects are still a few years away from being realized, they are part of a huge revitalization of arts and creative industry. Through these visionary projects and by fostering creativity, we aim to revive the spirit of creativity that has always been part of AlUla’s DNA.
There are many other projects, far too many to list, but including a world-leading archaeological research center called the Kingdom’s Institute, which form part of the Journey Through Time masterplan for AlUla.
How do you think AlUla can differ from other destinations in the Middle East?
AlUla stands out as a destination that uniquely blends ancient heritage with modern experiences, creating an unparalleled offering that cannot be found elsewhere. There are few destinations in the world that offer such significant historical and cultural experiences alongside luxury and sophistication that today’s discerning travelers expect. It takes pride in preserving its traditions and rich history while embracing niche markets and trends, fostering innovation and sustainability.
Central to AlUla’s unique appeal lies in its ability to transport visitors on a transformative journey where the ancient and contemporary seamlessly intertwine. By immersing themselves in the cultural richness, natural beauty, and commitment to sustainability that AlUla embodies, travelers have the opportunity to create cherished memories and forge a profound connection with this extraordinary destination.
What are some of the must-visit areas or locations in AlUla that our readers should visit?
AlUla is a treasure trove of remarkably well-preserved historical sites. Dadan is AlUla oldest heritage site, The ruins and unique tombs cut into the red rock mountain denotes one of the most sophisticated cities of its era, dating back circa 1500 BCE. Jabal Ikmah is a stunning mountain full of ancient inscriptions and petroglyphs from many different cultures and parts of the world and proves how important AlUla was as a stopping point on the Incense Trading Route. And the jewel in the crown, Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, features intricately carved sandstone tombs that bear witness to the legacy of the Nabataean civilization. In AlUla’s Old Town, which was continuously inhabited from the 12th century to the 1980s, labyrinthine streets immerse visitors in the everyday life of past communities and has since been thoughtfully conserved to become a vibrant precinct for dining and shopping, including the adjacent AlJadidah with its five community squares offering food trucks, art galleries, boutiques and more.
The natural wonders of AlUla, with its sandstone cliffs, canyons, and unique desert landscape, also offer a spectacular and unique environment for outdoor activities and nature-based experiences. AlUla’s Adventure Hub has an extensive line-up of adrenaline-charged pursuits for thrill-seekers, such as the Giant Swing, the AlUla Stairway, and the AlUla Zipline – all of which provide stunning views of the canyons and mountains. For those who prefer to keep their feet on solid ground, AlUla’s terrain is ideal for cycling and hiking, while stargazing tours with one of our expert Rawis give visitors a different perspective on what the county has to offer.
Where would you like to see the region by 2030?
Our vision for AlUla by 2030 is to establish it as a globally renowned luxury boutique destination, celebrated for its rich culture and heritage. We strive to become a destination of choice, one that reflects the beauty of its surroundings and stays true to the rich tapestry of 200,000 years of human history that the region has borne witness to. We aim to captivate discerning travelers from around the world, positioning it as a destination that combines light-touch sustainable tourism with authenticity and a deep appreciation for its cultural and historical significance.
As we continue to develop and evolve, new employment opportunities will be created, contributing to Saudi Arabia’s diversification goals. AlUla will offer exceptional experiences that seamlessly blend heritage, nature, adventure, and cultural immersion. Visitors will have the opportunity to engage in unforgettable moments, explore captivating historical sites, immerse themselves in breathtaking natural landscapes, embark on thrilling adventures, and deeply connect with the region’s cultural traditions.
By safeguarding AlUla’s cultural and natural heritage, we are setting a strong foundation for a sustainable future, ensuring that the wonders of AlUla can be enjoyed for years to come.