On an exclusive trip to Saudi Arabia to consult with the crown prince on the nation’s new tourism program, Indagare COO Eliza Harris uncovers the tourism blockbuster of the next decade.
On some journeys, the real magic is in being in a destination at a certain moment, when you have been lucky enough to slip in through a window of opportunity and it seems as if, if you blink, it will close. Sometimes it’s when things are changing so rapidly that you know a place will be radically different in a year. That was how it was for me in Shanghai in 2014: As I stood on the Bund looking across the river at the Pudong skyline, with its imaginative, futuristic architecture and cranes scattered in every direction, I had an intense feeling of watching the city transform before my eyes. Sometimes, it’s the opposite, when globalization and commercialization haven’t arrived, as when you notice the lack of American brands in Havana or the small-town vibe of Harbour Island. Sometimes it’s when a place is just welcoming Western tourism, as Myanmar was five years ago, and you have a sense of being let in on a wonderful secret. And sometimes it’s just going to a place where nature is still so pure and unspoiled that being there feels like winding back the clock. That’s how I felt the first time I went to New Zealand.
In January, Indagare CEO Melissa Biggs Bradley and I had the opportunity to visit another destination at a crossroads, a place that combines an opening up to the West, memorable culture and pure natural beauty. The latter is most evident in Al-’Ula, a region about the size of Belgium in northwest Saudi Arabia, centered on a gorgeous ancient oasis and containing a wealth of 2,000-year-old archaeological sites that are treasures of human history. The heart of this region is Mada’in Saleh, home to a breathtaking Nabatean necropolis of more than 130 rock-hewn tombs that recall of those at Petra, in Jordan. Although named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, it has attracted few Western visitors. Currently, it attracts none at all, as the government officially closed it, along with two other sites, while a royal commission decides how best to protect and preserve the magnificent tombs, some of which are still being excavated.
The entire country is on the cusp of change, implementing economic and social reforms, including allowing women to drive for the first time. A key impetus for this is Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud’s ambitious blueprint for the kingdom’s future, Vision 2030. By that date, he projects that at least 50 percent of Saudi Arabia’s revenue will come from sources other than oil. One of those sources will be tourism centered on the kingdom’s rich cultural heritage. As part of this, the government plans to allow tourist visas starting this year, a sea change for this famously private country, where visas have been extremely limited and tightly controlled.
To get to Al-’Ula, Melissa and I flew to Riyadh and then headed 600 miles northwest, deep into the desert, by plane and then car. We didn’t know what to expect, as in our eleven years at Indagare, we had never planned a trip to the kingdom. Before starting out, we’d read books on the destination and scoured the Internet for information, but discovered little. Melissa found some friends who had been who assured us that we would feel safe as two women traveling alone (we did) and that, although donning an abaya (the long black Islamic dress that is the customary attire for women) and headscarf was recommended in public places, there would be plenty of more-private settings where modest Western clothes (covering wrists and ankles) would be considered appropriate. We had an inkling we were in for a really special experience when we met our wonderful guide, Ahmed, at the airport and immediately sensed his tremendous pride of place. “My family has lived in Al-’Ula for 597 years,” he told us as we drove through the desert toward our tented camp.
The landscape in Al-’Ula is stunning and well worth a visit by itself. A bit reminiscent of Arches National Park and the Grand Canyon, it contains red rock canyons, craggy mountains, endless lava fields atop high plateaus, sandstone pillars silhouetted against the sky, huge rock formations and rolling dunes. Because of the oasis, there are also abundant date farms, with rows and rows of palms (more than 2 million), their fronds bright pops of green in the dusky desert. On foot, you notice exquisite natural details, like the swirling stripes of color formed by the sedimentary layers of the rocks and the honeycomb effect created by the wind eroding the sandstone. We stayed at a tented camp in a box canyon. It had evidently had very few Western travelers, as indicated by things like an English breakfast menu that had clearly relied on Google Translate, to comical effect (would you prefer the “I am from olives,” the “turkey turkey cheese” or the “Foul Dump My Liver”?). The setting, however, was spectacular. In the evenings, the camp lit the rocks from below, and this, combined with a night sky strewn with stars and free from any light pollution, made for a magical experience.
The best part of our visit was learning about the expansive history and culture packed into this one place. For thousands of years, this desert oasis was a favored resting spot for travelers on all sorts of journeys. As part of the Dedanite Kingdom in the sixth century BCE, it was a key stop on the incense trade route connecting the Arabian Peninsula to Mesopotamia. Millennia later, Akra Mountain, in the north of the region, was a landmark where Muslim pilgrims doing the Hajj would stop on their way to Mecca to rest their camels in the shade. They inscribed their names on the rocks there, along with phrases like “May Allah bless my journey,” “I am Abdullah asking Allah for forgiveness” and “Anyone who comes here without water has no one but himself to blame.” Today, half a millennium later, the whole mountain is still covered in this 15th-century graffiti. The pilgrimage site was uncovered by archeologists only a year ago, and when we went, we were the only ones there. It is this sense of discovery that makes visiting Al-Ula so exciting.
Our days were filled with adventures. We took a helicopter ride over dunes and the Hijaz Mountains, swooped past bedouin camps and the towering sandstone rock formations of Al Ghrammel (“the pillars”) and landed on a basalt plateau. We hiked through hidden canyons and scrambled up rocky outcrops to take in sweeping views of the countryside. We climbed to square-cut Lihyanite tombs from the fifth century BCE and wandered through a partially excavated city. We saw rock inscriptions written in Dedanitic script from the first century BCE and toured the fascinating Al Deerah heritage village, which has its origins in the Islamic period. Our guide’s family grew up there, and he easily navigated the confusing maze of alleys to show us where they had lived, where his grandfather’s shop was and where they kept their goats.
The highlight of our trip was our time in Mada’in Saleh. Built by the Nabateans, this 2,000-year-old necropolis was the second largest city in their kingdom after Petra, their capital. Its 131 tombs—some small, some hundreds of feet high—are well preserved and breathtaking in their beauty. The sun and shadows play on the red sandstone surfaces. The largest and most impressive is Qasr Al Farid (“lonely castle”). The height of a four-story building, it is hewn from a giant rock. Melissa and I agreed that our visit to Mada’in Saleh was one of the most memorable travel experiences of our lifetimes and that we were privileged to be there.
We have no doubt that Al-’Ula will become a blockbuster destination in the coming years. As soon as we can possibly arrange trips, we will introduce our members to this incredible place. Stay tuned!