Arabia’s hidden gem, AlUla

Displaying over 200,000 years of ancient human history, AlUla in Saudi Arabia is an outdoor museum waiting to be explored, says Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey

Having lived for many years across the Middle East, I had occasionally caught glimpses of the monolithic tomb in the middle of the desert of Saudi Arabia. Pictures from a colleague who had visited the country on business, or an early social media post from an expat friend living in Jeddah, who undertook a long road trip through the desert to visit Hegra. It was like a mirage, I knew it was there, but it seemed unreachable.

Seeing the site climbed ever higher on my to-do list, until, finally, Saudi Arabia introduced the e-visa in 2019 and welcomed people who wanted to enter for the sole reason of having a look at the amazing historic sites dotted across the kingdom.

Alula balloon
Take to the skies to soar high above ancient rock formations


And my first sighting of the real thing was truly worth the wait. There it stood: A tall, lone rock in the desert, with an incredibly intricate tomb carved into its entirety. The workmanship, the scale, and the beauty of it is similar to Petra in Jordan, the other famous settlement of the Nabataean Kingdom, which thrived in this region more than 2,000 years ago. And although I had always expected it to be a tomb standing all on its own, far away from anywhere, that is only partially true, as there are some 110 other tombs carved into the rock formations nearby. So much the better.

Despite having been a meeting point of merchants, pilgrims, and kingdoms for the last few thousand years, AlUla, located in northwestern Saudi Arabia, has maintained its wild and seemingly unexplored scenery. The landscape, however, is dotted with history, incredible history that has not been open to the public until recently.

While the Nabataean tombs are probably the most famous sights, there is also the ancient kingdom of Dadan, where the tombs are cut into the dark red cliff face. There’s also Jabal Ikmah, AlUla’s ‘open air library’ – a mountain featuring ancient inscriptions and petroglyphs telling of many more cultures living in this oasis that once welcomed caravans of merchants following ancient trading routes, such as the Incense Road. AlUla provides a glimpse into long-lost civilizations, but with a nod toward luxurious stays, good food, and modern conveniences.

Alula street
Traditional mudbrick streets of Alula Old Town
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Merchants still trade spices

Forward thinking

As a newly opened tourism destination, AlUla has the opportunity to develop its infrastructure and offerings with sustainable first principles. It is a destination for those looking for a boutique and luxury experience. Beautiful properties such as the ultra luxury Banyan Tree AlUla, and Habitas AlUla, blend into the landscape of the Ashar Valley.

A new Chedi will open in early 2024 at Hegra, and a small deluxe eco hotel, Dar Tantora, crafted from some of the traditional mudbrick housing in AlUla Old Town. Other leading luxury brands including Aman will be opening in AlUla 2025/26. If your customers want to experience the outdoors then there are camping options with local tour operators such as Husaak Adventures, and Habitas also operates a number of retro Airstream RVs. All accommodation is being built with sustainability in mind and reducing tourism’s footprint.

Catherine Cone, Director of Environment and Sustainability for the Royal Commission for AlUla says: ”The sustainability roadmap for AlUla has four starting points: efficient water management; protection of biodiversity; carbon neutrality by 2035 (excluding air travel and food imports); and promotion of a circular economy through measures such as recycling and reduced waste generation.”

Extensive training material is available at alulaspecialist.com, covering historic sights, accommodations, sustainability, experiences, and AlUla’s ongoing and annual events, including music and arts festival Winter at Tantora, AlUla Skies Festival and Ancient Kingdom Festival, marking Hegra’s 15th anniversary as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This one-stop shop for travel agents includes three training modules, a series of seven new short training videos, as well as imagery, agent perks, a directory of product suppliers and more.

What’s new

Autograph Collection: The Marriott Autograph Collection will be opening a property in AlUla by 2025. The hotel will be in central AlUla, and extend over 22,635 square metres. Some 250 rooms and suites, four dining venues, a spa, swimming pool, fitness centre, meeting facilities and retail space are planned. autograph-hotels.marriott.com

Chedi Hegra and Dar Tantora: AlUla will shortly welcome two new hotels, Dar Tantora and Chedi Hegra. Dar Tantora is an upscale eco-lodge launched by The House Hotel in historic AlUla Old Town, and Chedi Hegra will be the first hotel located at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hegra. Both hotels plan to open late 2023/early 2024. experiencealula.com

Futuristic Stays: The Mexican luxury eco resort AZULIK will be opening a sustainable resort featuring 76 villas near the Nabataean Horizon District and the AlMuatadil Equestrian Village by 2027. azulik.com

E-Visas expanded: Promoting tourism, the availability of fast e-visas, valid for a year of repeat visits of up to 90-days each, has been expanded to eight more nationalities, including UK and European Union residents and Schengen visa holders. visa.visitsaudi.com

Alula maraya
Maraya concert hall

Top experiences

Nabataean Legacy: While there are over 110 Nabataean tombs at Hegra, the monolithic ‘Tomb of Lihyan, son of Kuza’ is the most iconic sight appealing to clients. A tour in a Vintage Land Rover, which can seat up to seven guests, includes a number of tombs incuding the Tomb of Lihyan, Jabal AlBanat and Jabal Ahmar together with the traditonal meeting area of the Diwan and the Siq. Price per Land Rover, from £150.

Old Town Tour: Get a glimpse into AlUla’s not-so-distant past on the Old Town Tour. A Rawi (guide) will lead you through AlUla’s Old Town, where pilgrims, travellers and permanent settlers congregated through the ages. Inhabited from before the 12th century up until the early 1980’s, Old Town offers researchers unique oral histories and living memory that other heritage sites cannot. Until March 2024, there are three tours a day on weekdays, and four tours a day on weekends. Priced from £15pp.

Maraya: No venue is more unique than Maraya. AlUla’s masterpiece sets a world record for being the largest mirrored building. Sitting in the Ashar Valley, the mirage-like building rises from the desert, reflecting the beauty of its natural surroundings. Inside, the venue is a cultural hub hosting huge concerts and classical performances, art residency programmes and arthouse films.

Reach for the stars: It is the rocky desert landscape and remoteness around AlUla that ensures that light pollution is extremely low, making it a perfect location for stargazing. Book an evening stargazing tour in the secluded Gharameel area. This tour includes an expert guide who will explain the night sky and its constellations. From £70pp.

Get the Adrenaline pumping: For true daredevils, visit the Adventure Hub. The Giant Swing involves being launched off a cliff, suspended from a 70m swing, swinging through a canyon for great views. This is only suitable for reasonably fit clients, as it involves a 100m climb up to the launch site. Priced from £50pp.

Creative flow: The dates for the annual AlUla Arts Festival have been confirmed for February 8 to March 2 2024. The festival, which takes over the Old Town, wadis, and historic sites, with installations, workshops, and talks, is already a firm favourite with art lovers, and accommodation should be booked soon.
Discover more on experiencealula.com

Where to book it

If Only
A four-day Discover AlUla: Incredible Culture and National Treasures package departing Mach 2024 includes a stargazing experience, a Helicopter tour and three nights at the five-star Shaden Resort. Priced at £6,359pp including flights from Heathrow with Saudia. ifonly.net