An intimate gathering of local expedition, education and cultural touring specialists, along with some VIP travel advisors, were educated on the up-and-coming Saudi Arabian city of AlUla at an event in Sydney on Wednesday [21 April, 2021] evening.
AlUla has set an ambitious target to reach 90,000 visitors in 2021 and 130,000 in 2022. Its key audiences are luxury experience seekers, escapists and affluent nomads.
In Australia, The Walshe Group was appointed to handle the travel trade marketing for AlUla in December 2020. Sonia Holt, General Manager of Destination Management and Antonio Khattar, Travel Trade Executive, provided insight into this intriguing destination which has been closed off to tourism until recently.
AlUla is located in the northwestern corner of Saudi Arabia. A destination in its own rights, AlUla is about the size of Belgium and is best known for its buttes that resemble those of the USA’s Monument Valley in Arizona and rocky outcrops found in Arches National Park, in Utah.
The region is riddled with preserved tombs, historic buildings and monuments that hold over 200,000 years of largely unexplored history, Holt said.
Among the destinations, major drawcards are the heritage sites at Hegra (the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Saudi Arabia), the stone-built city of Dadan, and Jabal Ikmah, regarded as the largest open-air library in the world due to its hundreds of inscriptions and writings on the cliffs and rock faces.
Attractions in the region include the stalls and markets at AlUla’s Old Town, a precinct that dates back to the 12th century and only reopened to tourists in December 2020 after being closed for three years for restoration. Elephant Rock, AlUla Arch, the Gharameel Desert for star-gazing, and the city’s Oasis – home to 2.3 million date palms! – are other highlights.
Visitors have a diverse mix of activities to choose from, such as hot air ballooning, cycling trails, horse riding, walking tracks, off-road duning and zip-lining.
While not necessarily classed as a luxury destination, yet, Holt says its exclusivity is perceived as a luxury experience.
AlUla has a range of accommodation, including the Sahary AlULa Resort (a permanent tented site), Shaden Resort and its mix of villas, suites and rooms, and the just-opened, 100-room Habitas AlUla. Future accommodation developments include the Ashar Valley Resort and Ashar Resort by Banyan Tree.
In the high-end space will be the 43 suite and villa Sharaan by Jean Nouvel, a subterranean hotel carved into the sandstone hills of AlUla, and not one, not two, but three ultra-luxe Aman Resorts, opening in 2023.
AlUla is accessed via air and has its own airport (ALU), which last month opened to international flights for the first time. The closest major Saudi gateway airports are Jeddah (10 hours away by road) and Riyadh (7 hours by road), but a domestic flight cuts the travel time to ALU down to around 1.5 hours.
Another tourism project in Saudi Arabia known as the “Red Sea Project”, is 5-hours away from AlUla, however, it lacks the infrastructure and development strategy of AlUla, Holt noted.
When international borders reopen, Australians will be able to apply for an e-visa to enter Saudi Arabia. The e-visa is priced at US$160 and can be processed in around five days.
Australian startup expedition company, Arcadia Expeditions, offers a 24-day ‘Desert Empires’ itinerary through Jordan and Saudi Arabia which includes three nights in AlUla. The journey is the first of its kind overland trip through the neighbouring countries, with departures set for November 2021 and 2022. Details here.
Guests at the event also had the privilege of hearing from archaeologist, Professor David Kennedy. For two years from January 2018 to 2020, Kennedy was Director of the Aerial Archaeology in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia centred on AlUla.
This week’s first-ever Australian trade event for AlUla was held at the Arabic restaurant, Nour in Surry Hills, with the hosts and participants pictured.
Lead image: from left to right are: Melissa Borgo, Etihad Airways; David Adams, Arcadia Expeditions; Halina Kubica, Greece & Mediterranean Travel Centre; David Mannix, Arcadia Expeditions; Stuart Barrie, Academy Travel; Antonio Khattar, AlUla/The Walshe Group; Prof David Kennedy, AlUla Archaeologist; Sonia Holt, AlUla/The Walshe Group; Kylie Gorst, Low and Turner Travel Associates; Evan Petrelis, Renaissance Tours; Lisa Pagotto, Crooked Compass and Sarah Higgins, World Expeditions.