Closing Bell: Saudi main index steady at 12,105 

RIYADH: The visitor count to one of Saudi Arabia’s most treasured tourist spot AlUla exceeded expectations in 2023, according to its chief tourism officer.

This involved a greater share of international tourists than anticipated, in a sign that the project is gathering momentum.

Speaking to Arab News at the Saudi Tourism Forum in Riyadh, Phillip Jones admitted that the Royal Commission for AlUla has been surprised by how quickly the global tourism industry has embraced the project.

AlUla is home to historical and archaeological sites that trace more than 200,000 years of human history, and has been dubbed “the world’s largest cultural oasis” by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Reflecting on the success of attracting tourists to the site, Jones said: “We thought it would take us more than 10 years to get to a split of 40 percent international and 60 percent domestic and regional (tourists). This year we’re 35 percent international and 65 percent domestic and regional (tourists).”

He added: “Our goal (for 2023) was to reach 250,000 visitors from (2022’s) 185,000. We exceeded it.”

He highlighted that the two most prominent groups were “friends traveling together and families traveling together” including an increase in the number of visitors “coming from non-traditional markets” such as Asia, Northern Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

He explained that the aim is to “make it more of a year-round destination.”

To expand the recognition of AlUla beyond Saudi Arabia and the region, Jones said that the commission was launching a “global branding campaign” by the end of February as “our next evolution of telling our story” including a series of events in Paris, London, and New York, as well as Dubai, Mumbai and Shanghai.

According to the chief tourism officer, RCU moved out of its “planning phase” at the end of 2023 to its “development” one with hotels, restaurants and other attractions being announced.

This included two-Michelin starred restaurants that are found “nowhere else in the region,” as well as building an airport with 15 gates and a state-of-the-art terminal, and new airlines that will be revealed in February 2024.

He said: “Over the next five years, you’re going to see a couple of thousand new hotel rooms, several new museums and other cultural assets being delivered. And then you’re going to see some big announcements coming in terms of how we then take it to the next level for phase three.”

Two events that are coming up are a concert by singer Andrea Bocelli, who will be performing at the Maraya venue, and the cycling competition of the AlUla Tour, where 350 riders from around the world will take part.

Jones stressed that 52 percent of the employees working in AlUla’s hotels are residents of the Kingdom, adding: “We’re seeing more opportunity for Saudis to fill those jobs and generate the economic impact.

“One of the things we’ll be doing is opening the AlUla Academy next month, will be training frontline employees for those jobs in hotels, restaurants, other visitor assets across the destination so that we have some of the best trained employees who really understand the importance of providing that unique Saudi hospitality to our visitors.”

The chief tourism officer explained that the ratio of female to male employees was “almost 50/50” as they were “working really hard to try and make sure that that happens because in a lot of the young entrepreneurs in AlUla are female-owned businesses, and we’re seeing a lot of startup businesses that are female-owned, and that’s something we’re quite proud of and we’re going to continue to promote and push that.”

Jones emphasized their efforts in encouraging the private sector and entrepreneurs to use AlUla as an opportunity to try out “a destination that is probably a bit more advanced to some of the other giga-projects” and so “we’re happy to be sort of that test case for many of these companies.”

He said: “We have a very aggressive master plan. We have five master plans that we’re working toward fulfilling. The first is Journey Through Time, which connects all the five regions in the five different civilizations that left their mark in AlUla. So we’re well on our way with master plan one. Now we’re also working on master plan two, three and four, and then master plan five is the Sharaan Nature Reserve.”

Jones revealed that over 2,000 animals were introduced into the Sharaan Nature Reserve this year, and a visitor center is being built on the site.

“We just opened our new visitor center in AlUla. So we are doing a lot of the basics that we need to be successful in the long run,” he added.

Jones said RCU has been sticking to its “cultural manifesto” launched four years ago in Paris which laid the foundations for their commitment to sustainability across the entire ecosystem of AlUla.

He said: “When you go and look at the projects we built, you can see our commitment to sustainability – embracing wind, embracing solar, making sure that we transition the economy away from just oil and gas.”

Jones added: “You will see sustainability is one of the pillars of the development strategy for AlUla.”

The RCU’s tourism head concluded by noting: “As we continue to evolve the destination, it’s one of those sort of unique places that reinvents itself every year, adding to the uniqueness, but also adding experiences that they can only be found in AlUla across the Kingdom.”

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