RIYADH: With more than 200,000 years of history, AlUla is a rich destination of human and natural heritage. It is home to historic treasures, including the Nabataean city of Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site, and the tombs of Dadan, the stone-built capital of the Dadanite and Lihyanite Kingdoms.
It is also the abode of the city’s most prominent landmark, the Tantora or the sundial used by the locals of the old town to mark the start of the 40-day winter growing season. It lends its name to a festival called the Winter at Tantora.
Following the success of Winter at Tantora, which ended in February 2022, the CEO of the Royal Commission of AlUla, Amr AlMadani, announced that the destination would be open for tourists the whole year and help boost their numbers.
The city is preparing the groundwork to receive 250,000 tourists and visitors in 2023, according to the CEO.
During an exclusive interview with Arab News, AlMadani said the commission has already tested the potential of AlUla with the launch of Winter at Tantora.
This culturally significant festive season has always been filled with celebrations. The community has always been proud of its time-old traditions, and they continue to revive them every year.
The festival kicked off again Dec. 22, 2022, and will run till Jan. 21, 2023. It features a host of equestrian activities, including a new haute couture event for horses called Ikmah Fashion Cavalry, the competitive Fursan Endurance Race Cup and AlUla Desert Polo.
Where beauty meets art
The ancient oasis city also made a fortune out of its scenic beauty when it hosted a four-day event last February, celebrating the region’s homegrown citrus delights and stunning panorama of AlUla from the top of the Harrat Uwayrid.
While the heritage sites staged the cultural and archaeological workshops, the old town and the oasis presented the historical shows.
Naturally, where there is beauty, there must be art. So, on Feb. 13, the city inaugurated the first AlUla Arts Festival that offered visitors a captivating ensemble of carefully curated exhibitions and gigantic outdoor installations by a host of local and international artists.
The arts festival lit the excitement of the winter and led the festivity until the end of March.
Many international and Arab artists, including British singer Seal, Canadian comedian Russell Peters, international singer-songwriter and viral internet sensation Naika, and Iraqi singer Rahma Riad performed at the Maraya Concert Hall in AlUla.
One exhibition, “What Lies Within,” staged in AlUla’s Maraya Concert Hall, featured works from the private collection of Saudi collector Basma Al-Sulaiman.
“This is a celebratory moment for us,” Saudi artist Lulwa Al-Homoud, who curated the exhibition, told Arab News.
“Basma Al-Sulaiman has been working all these years to collect and preserve Saudi contemporary art.”
Free and open to all, Desert X AlUla 2022 also presented an international open-air art exhibition in the canyon of the AlUla desert.
Held between Feb. 11 and March 30, the exhibition showcased 15 extraordinary works by 15 artists created especially for AlUla.
Under the theme of “Sarab,” the exhibition explored ideas of mirages and oases, both intrinsic to desert history and culture.
There was also a spiritual tinge to the festivity when during the holy month of Ramadan in April 2022, AlUla treated families to special accommodation offers, including iftar and sahoor settings and a myriad outdoor evening adventures.
Far from city lights, remote desert lands create some of the world’s most enviable dark skies, making AlUla’s idyllic locale and dramatic rock formations spectacular for star and moon gazing.
During the same month, the RCU announced a partnership agreement with the French operator Accor as part of its strategy to develop AlUla as a tourism destination for nature, culture and heritage.
The agreement will see Accor operating an expanded Ashar Resort under the Banyan Tree brand.
The deal opened 82 high-end villas, a luxury spa, and gourmet restaurants for discerning tourists. The offering
captured a sensitive design that allows each villa to blend discreetly into the striking natural scenery of the Ashar valley, located 15km from Hegra.
In July, AlUla announced three direct flights a week from Riyadh and later increased it to five. It is also connected to Jeddah, with flights operating six days a week. The city also offers air connectivity to Dammam over weekdays.
One of the attractions of AlUla is its weather, which is slightly more relaxed than many other parts of the Kingdom during the scorching Saudi summer.
As a result, it is a popular location for visitors keen to enjoy outdoor activities such as cycling, camel riding, swimming or hiking during the day and stargazing at night.
Meanwhile, culture and heritage fans could sign up for guided tours of historic locations such as Hegra, AlUla Old Town, and about half a dozen other options around Dadan, Jabal Ikmah and other areas.
More adventurous or active visitors could also opt for ziplining, rock climbing, hiking on the hidden valley trail, or taking in the views from the air on a helicopter tour.
Stargazing is a favorite activity for those who prefer to relax and enjoy a slower-paced vacation. There were also live concerts and other performances in the Old Market Town.
On July 2, the RCU signed a tram design agreement with the leading French transportation company SYSTRA to advance the AlUla tram project, connecting the governorate to several stations, tracks, routes, landmarks and historical heritage sites.
The tram project aims to enhance the sustainability of AlUla transportation by reducing road congestion and noise levels. It also aims to effectively use sustainable electric energy and a link between centers, neighborhoods, heritage sites and tourist sites.
In August, the city announced the lineup of its key events and festivals in 2022, including the music festival Azimuth, AlUla Wellness Festival and Winter at Tantora.
In October, the French hospitality company Accor opened its first Banyan Tree branded property in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s AlUla city.
RCU Hotels and Resorts head and executive director John Northen said: “The Banyan Tree AlUla opening marks the completion of the final development phase of Ashar Valley, which also houses the world-famous Maraya Hall.
AlUla’s newest gathering place started to receive people at its AlManshiyah Plaza, a lively community with restaurants and cafes, playgrounds and communal areas, and live music on Fridays.
The RCU is also developing AlUla’s old town, where they will inaugurate the 30-room boutique hotel. “It’s going to be completely different; you will feel like you traveled back in time and experienced something very unusual,” Northern told Arab News.
The city has also regenerated its 2,000 sq. km vast Sharaan Nature Reserve, a sanctuary for the Arabian leopards. “Here, we are developing two exciting hotels, one designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel, which will be crafted inside the mountain,” Northen said.
Between Sept. 30 and Oct. 22, AlUla Dates Festival saw an array of cultural activities; the event showcased the Al-Shannah date preservation method unique to AlUla.
In November, a new event called the Ancient Kingdoms Festival took place to bring the past into the present with experiences inspired by the significance of 7,000 years of successive civilizations on the Arabian Peninsula.
The festival offered a series of arts and outdoor events at the key heritage sites of AlUla.
The RCU also made its foray into the metaverse with an immersive 3D model of Hegra’s Tomb of Lihyan, son of Kuza, recreating a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the metaverse for the first time.
The landmark will be available to online visitors on Decentraland, a virtual world platform that allows users to buy and visit virtual plots of land. Visitors will also be able to take a 360-degree tour of the 72-feet tall tomb, set among a realistic recreation of AlUla’s desert landscape.
But that is not all. In November, Catmosphere Foundation launched its second Catwalk, building on the success of the 2021 event, which attracted more than 27,000 participants from 102 countries.