Since Saudi Arabia’s prince and prime minister decided to expand Saudi Arabia’s tourism to include westerners, desert and historical tourism was top of the list. One of the main attractions of Saudi Arabia, to rival Jordan’s Petra, will be Alula, Al-Ula, or confusingly spelt in English as AlUla. The Saudi ruler, crown prince and prime minister Mohammed bin Salman wants Saudi Arabia to diversify and to be liked by the West. Part of the plan for this Vision 2030 is to increase heritage tourism.
AlUla is the place and a special commission has been set up to make that happen. Some new research includes findings on desert kites and pendant shaped funerary highways. For archeologists, getting a gig in Saudi Arabia could be the hottest ticket in town.
Archeologists are being flown in, hotels are being built, and historical tourism sites are being promoted and made accessible to westerners. Historically the only tourism that came to Saudi Arabia were business travellers or people coming in to offer English as a second language ESL classes. The times have changed. Although we like what’s happening at AlUla and would like to visit one day, we are less impressed by Neom projects that radically change the landscape (ski on fake snow?) and expel people already living there, like at The Line.
Where is Alula?
Located 1,100km from Riyadh in north-west Saudi Arabia, AlUla is a place of extraordinary natural and human heritage. The vast area, covering 22,561km², includes a lush oasis valley, towering sandstone mountains and ancient cultural heritage sites dating back thousands of years.
The most well-known and recognised site in AlUla is Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. A 52-hectare ancient city, Hegra (Mada’in Salih) was the principal southern city of the Nabataean Kingdom and is comprised of nearly 100 well-preserved tombs with elaborate facades cut into sandstone outcrops. The people of Petra were also Nabateans, teaching the world many a useful thing like desert irrigation for crops.
Current research suggests Hegra was the most southern outpost of the Romans after conquering the Nabataeans in 106 CE.
In addition to Hegra, AlUla is home to a series of fascinating historical and archaeological sites such as: an Old Town surrounded by an ancient oasis, Dadan, the capital of the Dadan and Lihyan Kingdoms, which is considered one of the most developed 1st-millennium BCE cities of the Arabian Peninsula; thousands of ancient rock art sites and inscriptions in Jabal Ikmah; and Hijaz Railway stations.
The region is home to vernacular architecture as well, with mud buildings in disrepair. And Maraya, a mirrored music hall is a stand out feature to this ancient desert setting.