In a rarely visited corner of Saudi Arabia, a new destination is rising up around ancient cultural wonders. But will the Kingdom’s ambitious efforts actually convince the world to make the trip?

By Paul Brady
July 18, 2021
Advertisement
Elephant Rock, in Saudi Arabia
Jabal al-Fil, or Elephant Rock, is one of Al Ula's star geological formations.
| Credit: Courtesy of Aman Resorts

There's a place in the Arabian Desert that holds 7,000 years of history, more than 100 megalithic tombs that rival anything at Petra, Jordan, and an oasis of 2.3 million date palms. Yet even the most well-traveled adventurers may struggle to find Al Ula on a map. That could be about to change, as the government of Saudi Arabia embarks on an ambitious plan to make this destination world-famous.

Located on ancient trade and pilgrimage routes in the northwest of the country, the region of Al Ula spans more than 8,700 square miles, making it about the size of New Jersey. Until recently, its most noteworthy attractions were 111 remarkable tombs carved into mountainsides and stone outcrops more than 2,000 years ago by the Nabataeans, an ancient people who settled this stretch of the Arabian Peninsula.

These showstoppers were named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008, but they're hardly alone. So far, more than 27,000 distinct archaeological sites have been identified in Al Ula. Ongoing excavations are expected to reveal other secrets in the coming years, according to Rebecca Foote, director of archaeology and cultural heritage research for the Royal Commission for Al Ula (RCU), a Saudi government entity established to develop the area.

"Rather than building with stone, the Nabataeans carved their tombs straight from the rock, responding to the landscape and how it inspired them," Foote says.

Sihouette of tourists and umbrellas at the Madain Salih architectural site in Saudia Arabia
Touring archaeological sites in the region.
| Credit: Eric LAFFORGUE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The RCU has set a goal of bringing more than 2 million visitors to the region annually by 2035. But travelers may face a dilemma in choosing whether to go, given Saudi Arabia's human-rights record. What's more, the U.S. State Department maintains a Level 4: Do Not Travel warning on the country not only because of COVID-19 but also for the risk of terror attacks.

Events and attractions featuring boldfaced names are helping advance the goal, which got a boost from the fall 2019 launch of tourist visas. This spring saw the arrival of the first Extreme E-series Desert X Prix, a rally-style race featuring electric SUVs, plus an open-air concert by Andrea Bocelli. A film, music, and food festival, Azimuth, brought international pop acts, including the Chainsmokers, and an outpost of Annabel's, the London private members' club. British chef Jason Atherton is planning to open a restaurant, Maraya Social, in October 2021, a sister to his buzzy Social restaurants in Dubai, London, Shanghai, and St. Moritz, Switzerland.

A planned guest suite at Al Ula, Saudia Arabia, from the Habitas brand
Plans for a Habitas resort in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, call for elaborate guest suites.
| Credit: Courtesy of Habitas

There's also a new focus on wellness. Riyadh-based Alaa Abanomi, a former investment banker turned well-being entrepreneur, created Urban Wellness House, a temporary retreat at Al Ula this winter that offered outdoor yoga, meditation, drum circles, and healing sound baths.

"To have men and women practicing together in a really respectful space with everyone accepting of each other was a beautiful thing," she says. Participants spanned a broad age range and arrived in everything from traditional garments to shorts and yoga gear. "We even had a camel herder arrive on his camel asking to join — and he really enjoyed it," Abanomi adds.

Global travel brands are taking note. "I'm wildly enthusiastic about Saudi Arabia," says Geoffrey Kent, the founder of luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent. "The magnificent sand dunes and breathtaking views are the perfect backdrops for the desert adventures we are planning." His long-term vision? A series of eco-lodges across the Kingdom.

A&K will have company: Banyan Tree Hotels & Resorts, the wellness-focused hotel company, is planning to open an Al Ula resort later this year, as is the new brand Habitas, which already has hotels in Namibia and Tulum, Mexico. Aman has announced its intention to open three properties in Al Ula over the next few years. And an independent resort, Sharaan, designed by the architect Jean Nouvel and slated for 2023, will be carved out of sandstone, in an echo of the Nabataean tombs.

Meanwhile, the RCU is building a global hub for archaeological research in partnership with the government of France and a 29-mile tram line connecting the biggest attractions in Al Ula. Including one that's sure to remain in demand for years: miles of vast, unspoiled desert, where there's still plenty to discover.

A version of this story first appeared in the July 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline If They Build It, Will We Come?