AlUla, the new tourism destination in North West of Saudi Arabia, has recently welcomed a wide variety of attractions and tourism experiences: from exciting new hotels and restaurants to helicopter rides over AlUla’s iconic landmarks including Elephant Rock and World UNESCO site, Hegra. Steeped in 200,000 years of human history, AlUla offers unique nature and adventure tours, unique accommodation, an untapped culinary scene and welcome, eager local communities.
New international flights connecting AlUla and Dubai
flynas, the Saudi national air carrier and leading low-cost airline in the Middle East, has announced its latest flights expansion including the first ever direct international flights into AlUla International Airport. The first international route into AlUla will take off from Dubai on 19 November 2021. From that day, AlUla will be even more accessible for UK travellers, who will then be able to combine a leisure holiday in Dubai with a cultural and historical break in AlUla, which be also linked with a direct flight to Kuwait. This announcement marks the first time that international travellers will enjoy direct access to one of the most significant archaeological and historical sites in the world. Domestic routes will be also added as part of the expansion, including Riyadh, Dammam and Jeddah.
New archaeological finds in AlUla
The Kingdoms Institute – AlUla’s global hub for archaeological and conservation research is providing the platform for pioneering scientific research. Two fascinating finds so far this year include:
The earliest evidence of a domesticated dog in Arabia
In March 2021, a team of archaeologists in AlUla uncovered the earliest evidence of dog domestication by the region’s ancient inhabitants. The discovery came from one of the projects in the large-scale archaeological surveys and excavations of the region commissioned by RCU. The researchers found the dog’s bones in a burial site that is one of the earliest monumental tombs identified in Arabia, roughly contemporary with such tombs already dated further north in the Levant. The dog’s bones were dated to between circa 4200 and 4000 BCE. Rock art found in the region indicates that the Neolithic inhabitants used dogs when hunting ibex, wild asses and other animals.
One of the world’s oldest series of monumental structures uncovered in AlUla
In April 2021, a detailed study in AlUla uncovered one of the oldest monumental building traditions yet identified. Researchers conducted an unprecedented aerial survey of AlUla and the surrounding region followed by an extensive ground survey and targeted excavation. While the existence of the mustatils was previously known, the more than 1,000 mustatils that the RCU-commissioned team recorded are roughly twice as many as were previously identified.
The aerial and ground research by a team from the University of Western Australia surveyed vast stretches of the region by remote sensing and helicopter. After recording their presence from the air, the team then explored some 40 at ground level and excavated one – altogether constituting the largest study of muscatels to date. These ancient structures in the Arabian Desert provide early evidence of ritual activity.
AlUla is an outdoor enthusiast’s ultimate playground. There are plenty of activities and attractions already open, such as rock art trails, an adrenaline-pumping bike track, mountain biking, stargazing tour at Gharameel or exploring the desert landscape by horseback. Other activities recently opened or set to open soon include:
New helicopter tours launched in August 2021 showcase the extraordinarily rich geological heritage of AlUla from the sky, as well as the sheer vastness of the Arabian desert. The 30-minute flight takes in seven major sites of significance. These include the monumental Jabal AlFil (Elephant Rock) AlUla’s most famous natural geological rock formation; Hegra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the southern capital of the Nabataean civilisation; The Hijaz Railway and the modern-day marvel of Maraya, the world’s largest mirrored building shining brightly like a diamond in the desert.
Via Ferrata and Canyon Hammock
The new guided climbing tour, Via Ferrata & Canyon Hammock, will transport guests on a thrilling journey through AlUla’s magnificent desert canyons. Expect climbing points, bridges, suspended obstacles and an array of exciting aerial challenges to freely move, explore and soak up the incredible canyon views and surrounding area. It is safe to say Via Ferrata & Canyon Hammock is an unforgettable experience.
Yoga in AlUla
Hidden in AlUla’s peaceful oasis of Hijrat Nora, the Emtinan Yoga Wellness Experience allows guests to switch off and revitalize through a 90-minute session of relaxing yoga and meditation techniques. Surrounded by age-old date palms, this unique outdoor studio is a magical location to find inner peace and embrace the natural beauty of AlUla.
Twisted Maze Hike
Hiking enthusiasts who are up for a memorable challenge should look no further than AlUla’s Twisted Maze Hike. An experienced guiding team will lead guests off the beaten path through the canyons of Madakheel. The 12-hour hiking adventure enables guests to test their limits whilst they hike, climb and swim through some of AlUla’s unbelievable rugged landscapes.
Ridge Walk Hike
The Ridge Walk Hike is a slightly easier hiking experience, perfect for families looking for a taste of AlUla’s nature and adventure. Guests have the chance to fully immerse themselves in the desert oasis, marked by awe-inspiring views of AlUla’s stunning landscape. A particular highlight on this guided trip includes the steep four km trek to a vantage point overlooking the iconic, Wadi AlUla.
Road to Eldorado Experience
Run by Husaak’s Adventures, the Road to Eldorado experience is a fascinating 12km hike within AlUla’s historic Grand Canyon. Adventure-seekers will be guided through a vibrant canyon full of colourful rocks, featuring rock art and carvings, walk-on exposed edges, navigate ladders and even have the chance to spot gold hidden in the rocks. This eight-hour adventure enables guests to experience first-hand Alula’s archaeological remnants and amazing rock formations within a captivating preserved area.
Take a two-hour extreme off-road drive across AlUla’s surreal scenery to a breathtakingly extinct volcano before embarking on a short but steep remote nature hike to the volcanos ridge. Guests will truly have a chance to experience this natural ancient phenomenon whilst being surrounded by pure tranquillity within a distinctive location, it is definitely worth the bumpy yet exhilarating ride to this epic Volcano Hike.
AlUla’s new zipline experience is perfect for adventure travelling seekers. As one of the longest in the world, visitors will race along to a speed of over 100km/h while enjoying the incredible scenery of the Hijaz Mountain range – this one is not for the faint-hearted. Operated by experienced adventure tourism operator, Warrior Group, it is the Kingdom’s most thrilling zipline.
NEW HOTEL OPENINGS
2021 sees two luxury new resorts opening in AlUla, joining the two main current offerings: Shaden Resort and Sahary Desert Camp. There are around a dozen new properties set to open over the next four years, including three ultra-luxury Aman properties in 2023/4 and a stunning resort in the Sharaan Nature Reserve designed by Jean Nouvel in 2024.
Habitas AlUla: Opened 1 November 2021
Set in the ancient oasis of the Ashar Valley, Habitas is a new eco conscious resort made up of 96 guest rooms, designed with ethically sourced organic materials that complement the natural scenery. Surrounded by magnificent canyon views and palm groves, this unique, immersive hotel promises a stay filled with magical moments, offering state-of-the-art amenities, farm-to-table culinary delights and complimentary wellness facilities. Habitas AlUla is the true embodiment of the brand’s six programming pillars: music, wellness, adventure, culture, learning, and culinary, all of which are meticulously developed to immerse guests within the region’s authentic culture and natural environment.
Banyan Tree AlUla: Opening Q4 2021
Inspired by more than 200,000 years of human heritage and unique landscapes, Banyan Tree is a new luxury tented resort, nestled against the incredible sky-high rock formations in a monumental valley. Welcoming 82 opulent villas, three mouth-watering gastronomical options and an array of wellness experiences from a luxury private spa, yoga classes and fitness studio, guests will be able to relax, rejuvenate and enjoy the unique sanctuary along the cultural oasis. www.banyantree.com/en/saudi-arabia/alula
With incredible Saudi and Middle Eastern cuisine available throughout the region, AlUla’s foodie offering is an adventure in vibrant flavours, textures and spices. There are delightful traditional restaurants, such as Suhail, serving up fine Saudi food in AlUla’s beautifully restored Old Town, or delicious pastry restaurants like Pink Camel, set within the AlUla oasis. Plus, plenty more are set to open:
Globally accredited Chef Jason Atherton, who owns and runs three-Michelin-star restaurants across the world, has recently opened his first restaurant in Saudi (27 October 2021). The restaurant is located on the rooftop of Maraya, the world’s largest mirrored building, where diners can embrace 360-degree views of stunning rock-strewn valleys and canyons of the Ashar Valley. Maraya Social is serving up fine European cuisine in a sharing format, and is working with local farmers to source fresh ingredients from the farm to the table. The restaurant offers a relaxing yet vibrant atmosphere during the day, and by night, it will be low-lit to create an unforgettable dining experience under the bright stars.
This legendary private members club is set to return in December 2021 to a new secret setting, after a successful pop up at Hegra in 2020. Annabel’s will feature a series of themed private dining areas, serving their signature menu favourites and bespoke mocktails inspired by AlUla.
Other restaurants set to open include:
- Forces of Nature, a fine dining restaurant set deep within a canyon, where the chefs use open fires and hyperlocal ingredients – developed by UK taste entrepreneurs Bompass & Parr
- Somewhere, offering a farm-to-table experience for breakfast, lunch and dinner
- Circolo, specialising in rustic and authentic Italian food
- SKLT, which will showcase the diversity of meat and other tantalising ingredients served on cast iron skillets.
- Incense Road Suppers – a unique 360 degree sensory experience using the famous incense road and spice routes as inspiration.
MAJOR EVENTS: ALULA MOMENTS
AlUla is set to welcome four festivals under the umbrella of AlUla Moments, celebrating the region’s heritage of art, culture, music, nature, wellness, equestrian, gastronomy and astronomy.
The four distinct festivals will commence on 21 December 2021 and run through to 30 March against the backdrop of AlUla’s many timeless wonders. Musical performances will also be back in AlUla with Maraya taking centre stage again as the venue for regional and international acts starting from this October.
- Winter at Tantora, set for 21 December – 12 February, is the very first music and arts festival in The Kingdom, and is returning this season in a six-week format. Winter at Tantora offers an array of culinary and musical experiences, live immersive shows, archaeology and cultural workshops, a new Citrus Festival celebrating local AlUla produce, and even an AlUla Desert Polo event.
- From the 13 February – 31 March, the AlUla Arts Festival will bring together exhibitions and encounters created by a diverse array of artistic talents, in celebration of AlUla’s legacy as a cultural crossroads. Highlights include a contemporary art exhibition and an outdoor cinema, presenting the best of arthouse Saudi filmmakers.
- AlUla Skies will set the sky alive from 27 February to 12 March and will be a fascinating display of the extraordinary geographical landscape of the region, from stargazing and helicopter tours, vintage flights and hot air balloon rides. There will also be a magical Symphony under the Stars musical performance, and a spectacular new sight and sound experience, Constellations – a high tech take on stargazing.
- And finally, 17-27 March 2022 will see the brand new AlUla Wellness Festival, offering a Five Senses Sanctuary with a full range of mind, body and soul experiences from expert yoga, meditation and mindfulness practitioners. From December, a stunning new Garden of Moments experience is set to open, using elements of the environment interacting with space, light and sound in thought-provoking installations.