A journey through time27 October 2020
/ The development of a tourist destination, as it happens: AlUla, in Saudi Arabia, is ready for the future /
Incense, spices, silk: since the most ancient times, the East traded its treasures to the rest of the world. Arabian deserts were crisscrossed by caravans and camels loaded with storied goods. And around those routes and their oasis, whole civilizations flourished – and later declined, leaving behind traces and monuments that have piqued the curiosity and raised the awe of people all over the world ever since. One such mysterious wonder of the East is the archaeological site of Petra, the fabled city carved in rose stone by the Nabatean, in present-day Jordan.
Some 500km south-east from Petra lies the second city of that ancient kingdom, less famous but just as mysterious and awe-inspiring as its better-known sister: Hegra, known today as Mada’in Salih. It is in the governorate of AlUla, in what is now Saudi Arabia, and in 2008 it became the Saudi kingdom’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. But while Hegra is the crown jewel, the whole AlUla region is a trove of archaeological treasures, a living museum of preserved tombs, sandstone outcrops, historic dwellings and monuments, both natural and human-made, that hold 200,000 years of largely unexplored human history. And now, finally, Saudi Arabia lets foreigners visit.
It didn’t go without saying. Saudi Arabia holds the two most sacred places for Islam, Mecca and Medina, and it has always taken this role very seriously, translating into strict rules for citizens and even stricter rules for visitors. Until recently, almost all international visitors were business travelers or religious pilgrims. But this is changing: the country is on a path to modernization. In tourism, this is especially visible since the launch of the Vision 2030 plan in 2016, which includes plans to open up to mainstream tourism: the kingdom is now issuing tourist visas, as well as investing on its tourist treasures, with resorts on the Red Sea coast, a theme park in Ryiad, and yes, the development of AlUla into a proper tourist destination.
One thing we know for sure is that Middle Eastern countries seem to have a knack for transforming themselves when they put their head to it (of course, having plenty of funds from oil does help, too). Take Dubai, for instance: from a quiet pearl-diving harbor to a modern metropolis teeming with next-gen tech and world-record features. We don’t know what will happen in Saudi Arabia yet; what we can do, is have a look at what they are doing with AlUla at present.
“AlUla is an untold story, a…
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