RIYADH: The ancient city of the Nabataeans in the historic AlUla Valley rises from the dawn of time to put Saudi Arabia on the world tourism map.
The AlUla Royal Commission, or RCU, is keen to take this step by pursuing a bold master plan to develop its hospitality, tourism and sustainability infrastructure.
“The historic town of AlUla has received over 250,000 visitors in the past 12 months, far exceeding its forecast,” John Northen, executive director of RCU, told Arab News while adding that the town hopes to attract 1 million visitors by 2025.
One of the most notable developments on this front is the expansion of Prince Abdul Majeed bin Abdulaziz Domestic Airport in AlUla. Last year, the airport received approval from the aviation authority to allow international flights to land.
The airport was not only expanded to receive 400,000 visitors per year, but also expanded to 2.4 million square meters to accommodate the growing inbound traffic.
“The airport can now meet our needs very well for the next 10 years,” said Amr Al-Madani, CEO of RCU.
Culture and heritage
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, AlUla is an exquisite sight, ranging from the deep green of the oasis and the ocher of the sand to the red of the sandstone canyons and the black tones of the volcanic rocks.
This enchanting setting is home to one of the most fertile valleys in the Arabian Peninsula.
The city is also home to Hegra, created by the Nabataeans, a mysterious trading clan whose enterprising heritage shone briefly but brightly over 2,000 years ago.
The unveiling of the spectacular rock-cut tombs of the ancient city is part of an initiative to transform the spectacular landscape and heritage of the wider AlUla region into one of the greatest cultural tourism destinations in the world. .
“It will be completely different; you’ll feel like you’ve traveled back in time and experienced something very unusual,” RCU’s Northen said.
World tourist destination
The city has also developed its infrastructure to meet the needs of the country’s growing tourism industry, especially international tourists.
Hosting some of the world’s biggest names in music and entertainment, including Alicia Keys, Lionel Richie and Andrea Bocelli, the city has made a name for itself on the global tourist scene.
“Twenty-four percent of visitors who now come to AlUla are international visitors. So we have a significant number of tourists from all over the world,” the commission’s director of destination marketing, Philip Jones, told Arab News.
RCU in the recent past has also hosted international events such as AlUla Arts, AlUla Skies, Winter at Tantora and the AlUla Wellness Festival to attract international and regional tourists.
The city is also seeing a growing number of hotels slated to open this year.
One such labor of love is the Banyan Tree Hotel, a sprawling destination with 79 villas slated to open in October this year.
The hotel is also a worthy neighbor to Maraya Hall, the world’s largest mirrored building and a centerpiece of the city’s growing cultural landscape.
RCU is also developing AlUla Old Town, where it will open the 30-room Boutique Hotel in October.
AlUla has also regenerated its sprawling 2,000 square kilometer Sharaan Nature Reserve, a sanctuary for Arabian leopards.
“Here we are developing two exciting hotels, one designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, which will be built inside the mountain,” Northen added.
Business destination, really?
Even more interesting is the icing of modernity on the ancient city. RCU has also positioned the city as a viable destination for businesses by reducing their operating costs and improving business opportunities in the region.
In February, professional services giant PwC opened a new office in AlUla, its sixth in the Kingdom. Located in the urban area of the city, PwC Middle East aims to serve growing projects in the North West region of Saudi Arabia.
“The presence of world-renowned companies, such as PwC, in AlUla is essential to our goal of transforming the region into a dynamic and thriving business hub,” Al-Madani said in a statement.
The company organizes training sessions for local entrepreneurs to help them keep pace with the region’s ongoing transformation.
“With the scale of growth we anticipate, we will need many services, engineering companies, consultants, design companies and artists to partner with us,” Al-Madani said.
According to RCU, more than 3,000 jobs have already been created in the tourism sector by entrepreneurs who offer new mobility choices and new experiences.
“Micro-enterprises are a means of accelerating economic growth because instead of looking for a job, each creates one plus one and one plus two jobs,” Al-Madani said.
He said entrepreneurship will be the foundation for sustainable economic growth as AlUla becomes a tourist destination.
Inspired by Vision 2030 and Saudi Arabia’s economic diversification plans, AlUla wants 70% of its economy to be based on tourism by 2035.
However, Al-Madani added that for the city to become a sustainable economy, there must be several economic drivers like the film industry, special education, agriculture and handicrafts.
Sustainable by heart
RCU sees sustainability as an important element in the development of AlUla, driven by the Saudi Green Initiatives launched in October 2021.
The head of the RCU said the commission hopes to derive 50% of the energy needed for AlUla from sustainable sources by 2035.
To achieve this goal, RCU is developing two sustainable power plants; it will launch tenders in about 18 months.
One station will be located north of AlUla and the other in the south.
“When we think about sustainability, we look to past civilizations for inspiration,” Al-Madani added. “We seek to apply innovative approaches to ancient wisdom to develop new ways to protect the natural landscape of AlUla and its people and secure its legacy for years to come. This is the main inspiration for Crossroads, using the past to chart the best path to the future,” he summed up.