A weekend in the Oasis.
Al-Ula is one of several oases in north-western Saudi Arabia.
Al-Ula was the chosen capital from at least the 6th Century BC for the Dadanite, Lihyanite and Nabataean civilizations.
It was an important station along the trade route from the southern regions of Saudi towards Mesopotamia, Egypt and beyond for valuable commodities, particularly frankincense and myrrh. It is also located along the route to Mecca Medina for Islamic Pilgrims.
One of the most famous settlements in the area is Saudi’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site - the Nabataean city of Hegra, known today as Mada’in Saleh.
If you google Mada’in Saleh or Al-Ula, it’s the large rock that dominates. An enormous piece of sandstone in the middle of nowhere with a partly completed tomb of the Nabataean civilisation - considered a very close second to the masterpiece at Petra in Jordan. While it’s Mada’in Saleh that everyone goes to see in this area, I feel that there is so much more to Al-Ula than Mada’in Saleh.
The inaugural Winter at Tantora festival, is an 8 week event showcasing this magnificent region. We participated in the 3 day weekend package - a sublime mix of sightseeing, cuisine, culture and a concert by Yanni in the Maraya Concert Hall.
A short flight from Riyadh on Thursday morning and we landed at Al-Ula airport - there were helicopters, convoys of luxury vehicles, paparazzi, private jets… designer everything, bloggers, media, celebrities, social media influencers were all in attendance. No expense was spared and Saudi is sending a very clear message that they are open for business. The vibe was fabulous!
The Royal Commission for Al-Ula (RCA) was established in July 2017 which aims at developing and promoting Al-Ula as an international tourism destination as well as developing a heritage and conservation plan to ensure its’ preservation. The RCA is being assisted by the French Government as part of a 10 year deal signed last year that includes provisions for hotels, transport infrastructure and a world-class culture and art museum. A major archeological survey has commenced to locate and catalogue all areas worthy of protection. Until the survey is complete, the area is closed to all tourists until 2020 unless they are part of a trip organised by an approved government tourism operator.
Tourist visa’s to visit Saudi Arabia are still only permitted for Islamic pilgrims visiting Mecca Medina. Wikipedia states that more than 15 million Muslims visit the country annually.
However, recently a 14 day tourist visa has been introduced. It is linked to the Sharek electronic visa system which allows foreigners other than pilgrims or business visitors to come to Saudi Arabia and visit any part of the country except the holy city for a cost of 640 Saudi riyals for approved tourism events such as Winter in Tantora.
This is a massive step toward opening the country to those other than religious pilgrims. There were German, Chinese and Spanish accents heard over the weekend and it was interesting to observe a more relaxed dress code - many females opting to remove their abayas with no consequence.
It was great to see a large number of female tour guides and ushers and some female students from universities in Riyadh are assisting the archeological team. Some need to work on their English, but then I need to work on my Arabic too.
By international standards, Saudi has a little way to go if they are to cope with increased visitor numbers. Basic infrastructure is there, roads are adequate, there are carparks for tour buses at most of the major sites, some limited information signage, a few grammatical errors but the basics are in place. Over time and with proper management, this region will rival Petra and the Pyramids of Giza.
Mada’in Saleh would be considered the jewel in the crown for most visitors and I felt guilty climbing all over and inside it, but for the mean time there are no access restrictions. I feel this may change in the coming years as numbers increase.
While it was a bucket list moment for me to finally see the “big rock”, I think the Maraya Concert Hall was my highlight. Designed by Italian firm Studio Gioforma, this 500-capacity venue is covered with mirrors on two sides. Al Maraya is mirror in Arabic.
It took 4000 men 20 days to construct the concert hall and adjoining temporary structure that housed the restaurant and an amazing Van Gogh light installation.
A large box reflecting the spectacular landscape in the middle of the desert. I will never forget the reflection of the moon at twilight, at that beautiful time when day becomes night. Inside it felt so intimate in scale. It boasts state-of-the-art audio, lighting and digital-projection equipment. Large glass panels at the rear of the performance stage offered a gob smacking view of the illuminated rocky landscape outside while Yanni performed in all his technicolour glory inside. It was so wonderful. So modern, so new, no segregated seating, people danced and screamed, the most enviable display of fashion - feathers, fur, SO much fabulous footwear, no mosh pit but it won’t be long…
Al’Ula is safe, distances between the must see attractions never go beyond 45 minutes, the scenery is jaw dropping glorious, there are no long queues, no hawkers, no homeless children hassling tourists. No graffiti, no litter.
We were on the budget option (my eyes still water thinking about the expense) and cost amendments should be considered by the organisers - but then what price do you put on such a wonderful experience - I am unsure? Our package included coach travel rather than 4WD and while next time I would go by car just to allow greater flexibility to stop to take photographs, I wouldn’t trade all the laughter, complaints and different nationalities on that crazy bus trip for anything. Coach tours are really such an interesting human experience. Learning and observing…
The itinerary was full - Elephant Rock, Dadan Kingdom, Mada’in Salah, Ikmah, old Al-Ula, Shalal Citrus Farm with additional options to take side tours for those wishing to explore further. We opted to stay at our desert camp for the day and enjoyed a hike and some much needed down time.
Our accommodation comprised air conditioned, tent style structures in a valley surrounded by enormous rock formations - complete with fully operational ensuite, flat screen tv, enormous comfortable bed and the views were incredible. It wasn’t exactly camping but it felt very Lawrence of Arabia. The staff however were not equipped to cope with tourists. Check in was prolonged and difficult due to the language barrier, breakfast was below average, there were no cars available for members of our group to leave the resort and go exploring and this needs attention for future events. While we were happy to stay at camp, it was incredibly frustrating for others in our group. The hot air balloon ride was cancelled due to bad weather, disappointing yes, very, but of no fault of the organizers.
Overall, the festival exceeded my expectations in showcasing this unspoilt part of the country. The magnificent landscape and undiscovered treasures of the region so dearly need to be shared with the world. Congratulations to the Winter at Tantora team, such a memorable experience and and I’m sure an event that will only get better as the seasons go by. Take a bow, for a first go you did great. Will I return for future events?
In a heartbeat x