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RIYADH: The ancient city of the Nabataeans in historic AlUla valley is emerging from the mists of time to put Saudi Arabia on the global tourism map.

The Royal Commission of AlUla, or RCU, is keen on achieving this milestone by pressing ahead with an audacious master plan to develop its hospitality, tourism and sustainability infrastructure.

“The historic city of AlUla received more than 250,000 visitors in the past 12 months, far exceeding its forecast,” John Northen, executive director at RCU, told Arab News while adding that the city 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 annually but also widened to 2.4 million square meters to facilitate the growing inbound traffic.

“The airport now can very well serve our needs for the next 10 years,” said Amr Al-Madani, CEO of RCU.

Culture and heritage

Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, AlUla is an exquisite sight, stretching from the deep green of the oasis and the ochre 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 clan of traders whose enterprising legacy shone briefly but brightly more than 2,000 years ago.

The unveiling of the spectacular rock-cut tombs of the ancient city is part of an initiative to transform the dramatic landscape and heritage of the wider AlUla region into one of the world’s greatest cultural tourism destinations.

“It will be completely different; you will feel like you traveled back in time and experienced something very unusual,” said RCU’s Northen.

Global tourism destination

The city has also been developing its infrastructure to accommodate the needs of the country’s growing tourism industry, especially international tourists.

By 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 tourism scene.

“Twenty-four percent of visitors who are now coming to AlUla are international visitors. So, we have a significant number of tourists coming from around the world,” the commission’s chief destination marketing officer, Philip Jones, told Arab News.  

RCU, in the recent past, also hosted international events such as AlUla Arts, AlUla Skies, Winter at Tantora, and the AlUla Wellness Festival to attract international and regional tourists.

Growing hospitality spread

The city is also seeing an increasing 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 of Maraya Hall, the largest mirrored building in the world and a centerpiece of the city’s growing cultural landscape.

The RCU is also developing AlUla’s old town, where they will inaugurate the 30-room Boutique Hotel in October.

AlUla has also regenerated its 2,000 square kilometers of vast Sharaan Nature Reserve, a sanctuary to the Arabian leopards.

“Here, we are developing two exciting hotels, one designed by the 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 cost and improving business opportunities in the region.

In February, professional services behemoth PwC opened a new office in AlUla, its sixth in the Kingdom. Located in the city’s urban zone, PwC Middle East aims to service the growing projects in Saudi’s northwest region.

“The presence of globally renowned companies, such as PwC, in AlUla is central to our goal of transforming the area into a dynamic and thriving business hub,” said Al-Madani in a statement.

The company is conducting training sessions for local entrepreneurs to help them match pace with the region’s ongoing transformation.

“With the size of growth we are anticipating, we will need many services, engineering firms, consultants, design firms, and artists to partner with us,” said Al-Madani.

Employment opportunities

According to RCU, over 3,000 jobs have already been created in the tourism sector by entrepreneurs who offer new mobility choices and new experiences.

“Micro enterprises are one way to accelerate 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 would be the bedrock for sustainable economic growth as AlUla becomes a tourist destination.

Inspired by Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 and economic diversification plans, AlUla wants 70 percent of its economy to rely on tourism by 2035.

However, Al-Madani added that for the city to become a sustainable economy, there must be multiple economic drivers like the film industry, specialized education, agriculture and craft.

Sustainable by heart

RCU sees sustainability as a significant element in the development of AlUla, driven by the Saudi green initiatives launched in October 2021.

The RCU chief said the commission hoped to draw 50 percent of the energy required for AlUla from sustainable sources by 2035.

To achieve the target, RCU is developing two sustainable power stations; it will invite bids about 18 months from now.

One station will be located north of AlUla and the other in the south.

“When we think of sustainability, we look to the past civilizations for inspiration,” added Al-Madani. “We seek to apply innovative approaches to ancient wisdom to develop new ways to protect AlUla’s natural landscape and its people and secure its legacy in the years to come. This is the core inspiration of crossroads, using the past to chart the best path into the future,” he summed up.



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