Saudi investment in heritage tourism is starting to pay off

Among the kingdom’s biggest bets is the ancient desert region of AlUla, which has become a magnet for hikers, history buffs, art lovers and luxury travelers

Across Saudi Arabia, ancient sites filled with the remnants of mud-brick imperial palaces and rocky Nabatean tombs are coming back to life.

From Riyadh’s Diriyah royal district and storied Red Sea port of Jeddah to the desert region of AlUla, the kingdom is spending lavishly to uncover its buried past and use it as a draw for both foreign and domestic tourists.

The dusty Jax industrial area on the outskirts of the Saudi capital, for example, has been transformed into a creative district crowned by the new Saudi Museum of Contemporary Art, or SAMoCA. Doors opened this week at teamLab Borderless Jeddah, the country’s first digital art museum, which sits in Jeddah’s historic Al-Balad neighborhood.

“Just like the preservation of the environment, it is crucial to preserve culture,” Fahd Hamidaddin, CEO of the Saudi Tourism Authority, said during a media roundtable discussion last month at the Arabian Travel Market conference in Dubai. “We are trying our best to make big bets on how much we can do that.”

Among the kingdom’s biggest bets so far is ancient AlUla, in which the government has poured billions to turn the site into a magnet for hikers, history buffs, art lovers and luxury travelers. In January, the Royal Commission for AlUla set up its own pavilion on the snowy main street of Davos, suiting up financiers at the World Economic Forum (WEF) with 3D goggles for an immersive virtual tour of the arid terrain.

“We are aiming to uphold the traditions and heritage of what AlUla has stood for across millennia,” Melanie de Souza, the commission’s Executive Director of Destination Marketing, told The Circuit at the Dubai travel conference. “We believe we have a responsibility to be preserving that heritage and telling a deep and rich story about it.” 

Visitors can explore AlUla through guided excursions that show off the ancient rock formations and archaeological wonders of the Nabateans, who ruled northern Arabia and the southern Levant between the 4th and 2nd centuries BC. Accommodations range from mid-market hotels to new five-star resorts such as the Caravan by Habitas AlUla and the Banyan Tree AlUla.

Both hotels have been built according to environmentally sustainable principles and evoke ancient Nabatean architecture in their design. Guests are greeted by professional  guides known as “rawis,” who are trained to help visitors understand AlUla’s history. The commission expects to create 40,000 new jobs over the next decade in AlUla, where unemployment runs high.

Last year, AlUla’s mirror-walled Maraya Concert Hall was the site of a three-month exhibition dedicated to American pop artist Andy Warhol that included his signature portraits of Muhammad Ali, Bob Dylan and Elizabeth Taylor.

Now the area’s new Al Jadidah Arts District offers several new spaces for contemporary art and design, including Athr and Design Space AlUla. Meanwhile, a range of casual and high-end restaurants have introduced dishes derived from the ancient Nabateans and their desert landscape.

Over the last five years since Saudi Arabia first introduced online visas for international visitors, tourism has grown dramatically. More than 100 million visitors entered the kingdom in 2023, a 56% increase from 2019.

The investment in heritage sites across Saudi Arabia also appears to be paying off. Close to 92% of AlUla visitors visit archeological sites or engage in other heritage-related activities, according to the commission, and ticket transactions for heritage experiences increased by 30% in 2023. Saudi Tourism Minister Ahmed Al Khateeb said at the WEF’s Riyadh summit in April that the kingdom’s tourism sector expects to rake in $80 billion in 2024 while introducing foreign travelers to Saudi culture.

“You get the best experience, and you know more about other people’s culture and other nations’ cultures when you deal and interact with locals,” Al-Khateeb said at the conference. “We want to make sure that our guests are served by local people.”

In Jeddah, three historic properties in Al-Balad – Beit Jokhdar, Beit Al Rayess and Beit Kedwan– are being restored as “heritage hotels.” The project is part of $20 billion Jeddah Central Project that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced in 2020 that is rehabilitating some 5.7 million square meters of the city’s historic waterfront. 

“For us, tourism is way more than just another economic sector,” Hamidaddin said. “It has allowed us to have a voice that brings the world’s attention to Saudi.”

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