Seasons come and seasons go. Such is life. But when seasons pass, they leave something with us: Memories of special moments.
The long grind of the pandemic was different, though. It felt like one long season without such special moments. We had to keep our distance from one another. We had to cover our faces with masks. Travel, one of life’s great pleasures, was difficult or impossible and our burgeoning events industry came to a screeching halt.
This week brings welcome news that our venues, restaurants and transportation systems can return to full capacity for the first time in 18 months. The flow of moments and seasons can return; so too can the healthy competition between events to provide our eager residents and visitors with unique, enriching moments to savor with friends and family.
For our team at the Royal Commission for AlUla, it means that we can offer a new edition of Winter at Tantora. After the success of the first two festivals, it was a real blow to our ambitions when the third was canceled because of COVID-19. Yet the long pause gave us time to reflect. As an international visitor destination, with our heritage sites, dining and many nature-based experiences offered all year round, we have made the intentional move away from the idea of “seasons” for AlUla. Winter at Tantora was so successful it became indelibly linked to AlUla the destination; now the destination needs to stand alone and be known for what it is: A globally significant heritage and cultural experience set among some of the world’s most visually stunning landscapes.
We feel confident that this new events program, under the banner of AlUla Moments, will be our best yet — at a time when we are all ready for a diversion. Before I mention a few of the highlights, let us remember the journey Winter at Tantora has made so far.
When we launched the first Tantora season in December 2018, it was not obvious that the country or the world was ready for this. Saudi Arabia was only just emerging from its long season of strict rules governing daily life. Vision 2030 had opened a door of possibility, yet it was still daunting to walk through that door. Tourist visas had only recently been introduced. The country did not have much infrastructure for tourism, especially beyond the big cities.
We at the Royal Commission for AlUla feel confident that this new events program, under the banner of AlUla Moments, will be our best yet
Winter at Tantora was the very first festival to venture out into the new terrain. Its inaugural season attracted 37,000 visitors, drawn by a lineup that featured heritage celebrations and concerts by Andrea Bocelli and the Lebanese soprano Majida El-Roumi (whose audience included a high-profile Lebanese delegation of almost 100 visitors).
With the high-caliber lineup and a pent-up popular demand for quality entertainment, that first season was a symbol of change and progress. As one young Saudi wrote in the pages of this newspaper at the time of the first Winter at Tantora: “We are witnessing a cultural transformation in Saudi Arabia that will affect the way we view our culture and present it at home and to the world.”
The second Winter at Tantora ran from December 2019 to March 2020 and featured theater, culture and concerts by artists including Lionel Richie. We were growing more confident in our ability to present top-flight entertainment in an amazing setting and were heartened by the response, as attendance rose by 36 percent, with 76,000 tickets sold across all events, and satisfaction levels of 89 percent were recorded. These numbers are important because it means other important figures also increased, including jobs (439 generated), skills (408 upskilled locals) and local community satisfaction (92 percent), with a total economic impact of SR704 million ($187 million).
And then, with thoughts turning to our third season, the pandemic struck. We felt like we had been on an amazing roller coaster ride — and it stalled right before the big loop. What to do?
We got back to work. We built up the tourism ecosystem at AlUla — for example, the airport is vastly expanded. We taught residents about the benefits of a tourism economy and made our words real by sending young AlUlans on scholarships to learn to be gourmet chefs, tour guides and more. We implemented a quality assurance program.
As international perceptions shifted, the commission opened 10 overseas offices to meet the demands of foreign tourism operators clamoring to work with AlUla and add tours to their brochures.
You see, a funny thing had happened. Whereas at the time of the first Winter at Tantora we felt very much like pioneers, three years later the Kingdom had changed. Festivals were not so rare anymore. The idea of entertainment in Saudi Arabia was no longer an oddity, either at home or abroad. The rest of the country had caught up with us: Ours were not the only dates to circle on the cultural calendar.
This means our current season will be judged by a higher standard — one we aspire to meet with our reimagined Winter at Tantora. Under the banner of AlUla Moments, this season’s Winter at Tantora will be one of four festivals we offer — along with AlUla Arts, AlUla Skies and AlUla Wellness — to better target the segments of our growing audience.
The new Winter at Tantora, which will run from Dec. 21 to Feb. 12, will focus on heritage, beginning with an opening-night candlelit symphony at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hegra. We will follow this with fashion and equestrian events, including desert polo, as well as a Citrus Festival (among the crops that grow in the fertile land of the Kingdom’s northwest are oranges and lemons) and a plethora of new dining experiences. These include the popular international pop-up Annabel’s, which will return, newcomer Maraya Social, the Kingdom’s only restaurant led by a Michelin-starred chef, and some exciting new concepts that showcase the produce and flavors of AlUla.
With interest having widened, we have changed our offering so that you can hone in on what’s important to you — whether that’s cultural, equestrian, music, nature or well-being — and you can do all of the above because you can buy single-event tickets rather than packages.
Those looking to jump right in, however, don’t need to wait for Winter at Tantora, as our musical events program at Maraya starts next weekend. The excellent soprano Hiba Tawaji performed on Oct. 29 — the first performance since Richie in March 2020.
We do hope you will join us this winter and witness the beauty of AlUla, where you can view petroglyphs by day and enjoy a concert under starry skies by night. Those are the moments that will enrich and sustain us as we find our way to the happy seasons ahead.
• Phillip Jones is chief destination marketing and management officer at the Royal Commission for AlUla.