How do you create a tourism industry from scratch? ABTA Magazine editor Florence Derrick travels to Saudi Arabia, on the first international cruise in 17 years, to find out
It’s approaching midday in Hegra, Saudi Arabia, and the sun is oven-hot – radiating off ochre-hued dunes. With the day’s heat approaching 40C, I’m reminded why wearing a headscarf here is so important. Spindly, spider-like ants 10 times bigger than the ones in my garden scuttle past my feet, between dry shrubs on the sun-baked sand. Before me, a huge, jagged sandstone rock has been sliced in half – the smooth cross-section having been transformed into an ornate façade, cut directly into the rock over 2,000 years ago. Classical columns and triangular pediments signify the final resting place of the leaders of the Nabataean Kingdom that controlled this parched desert between 400 and 200BCE – and also built Petra, a similar site some 600km north, in Jordan.
The tombs at Hegra make up the main archaeological site in AlUla, which became Saudi Arabia’s first-ever UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. Once an oasis town crucial to trade routes through the Arabian Desert, AlUla is now the crown jewel in Saudi Arabia’s fledgling tourism industry. Though this region of Saudi Arabia is the size of Belgium, Hegra – a half-hour drive from AlUla’s airport – is the focal point of escorted tours here. I’m in Saudi Arabia on a preview tour, on the Scenic Eclipse super yacht; ultra-luxury cruise operator Scenic plans to include Saudi Arabia in future sailings, starting with inaugural Saudi cruises in January 2022 from sister brand Emerald Cruises.
This is the first international cruise to Saudi Arabia since 2004, and it’s a privilege to be the only visitors at an archaeological wonder on par with Petra – which saw up to 24,000 visitors per month even during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Saudi Arabia has been closed off to visitors for 17 years, but the Kingdom’s de facto leader Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (nicknamed MBS) launched an ambitious reopening plan when he came to power in 2017. Vision 2030 is his strategy to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil, develop public services and invest in tourism – with a goal to derive 10 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product from tourism by 2030. If all goes to plan, 100 million visitors will be welcomed to the kingdom each year by the end of the decade – more than double the 41 million that came in 2018.
Read the full article on ABTA Magazine.