Ancient Saudi city of AlUla focusing on sustainability not mass tourism, officials say

Ancient Saudi city of AlUla focusing on sustainability not mass tourism, officials say
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RCU booth in Saudi pavilion at WTM. (AN Photo/Sarah Glubb)
Ancient Saudi city of AlUla focusing on sustainability not mass tourism, officials say
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RCU booth in Saudi pavilion at WTM. (AN Photo/Sarah Glubb)
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Updated 14 November 2023
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Ancient Saudi city of AlUla focusing on sustainability not mass tourism, officials say

Ancient Saudi city of AlUla focusing on sustainability not mass tourism, officials say
  • The UNESCO World Heritage Site is becoming one of the Kingdom’s top tourist destinations but a top Royal Commission for AlUla official tells Arab News ‘We’re growing responsibly’
  • The commission took part in the World Travel Market in London last week where, for the first time, it had its own booth within the Kingdom’s pavilion at the event

LONDON: The ancient Saudi city of AlUla is rapidly becoming one of the Kingdom’s top destinations for local and international travelers, officials say, but mass tourism is not their top priority.
“We are growing, and we are growing very fast (but) part of our mission is to respond to sustainable and responsible tourism,” Rami Al-Moallim, vice president of the destination management and marketing office at Royal Commission for AlUla, told Arab News. “We are not yet open for mass tourism, and it is not the focus.
“We need people to experience AlUla, to feel AlUla, to enjoy AlUla, to have unforgettable memories in AlUla, so we’re growing responsibly.”
In terms of targets, he said the aim this year was to attract 250,000 visitors, which is already being achieved, and 292,000 next year.
“We believe this steady growth will be reached very soon (and) we are (targeting) around 1.2 million visitors by 2030,” Al-Moallim said. “We are growing steadily year over year (and providing) very good experiences for people to enjoy.”
The commission took part in the World Travel Market in London last week. It was the second time it has participated in the annual event under the banner of the Saudi Tourism Authority but the first in which it had a separate booth within the Kingdom’s pavilion.
According to Al-Moallim, the decision to expand its presence at the event this year was made because of the growing interest in AlUla in the international travel market, its increased tourism capacities, higher direct investments from travel partners, including hotel operators and activity providers, and greater numbers of partners who want to showcase what they offer.
The commission’s booth, which was larger than the entire presence of some countries at the event, showcased eight partners in particular, including hotel companies; Live Nation, which manages the Maraya concert hall; and tours and tourism operators Hero Adventure Experiences, Pangea Club and Warrior for Adventures.
The main established hospitality partners in AlUla, which is in Madinah province, currently include Habitas, Banyan Tree, Shaden and Cloud7, Al-Moallim said, but in London the commission also showcased new collaborators, including Dar Tantoura, an eco-friendly boutique hotel with 30 rooms. As plans for hospitality and accommodation in AlUla continue to expand, more will follow soon, he added.
“Dar Tantora will be followed by Hegra Heritage Boutique Hotel, which is another 30-room hotel, in Hegra, then Autograph Collection is also coming in 2025, followed by Six Senses in 2026,” Al-Moallim said.
“In addition to that, Cloud7 is (working on) an expansion currently to double the room capacity by this year-end.”
From an environmental perspective, the four pillars of sustainability — social, human, economic and environmental — are at the heart of the commission’s operations, he added, and it has adopted several initiatives under the banner of the Saudi Green Initiative.
“The newest project that we have, which is the Experiential Tram, is a low-carbon-emission tramway (covering a distance) of 22 kilometers,” Al-Moallim said. “It has 17 stations, so it takes you from the north to the south of AlUla, visiting the whole Journey Through Time master plan.”
On the social and economic fronts, he added, the Madrasat Addeera initiative offers workshops on handicrafts, art and education, with the aim of preserving and reviving local culture, heritage and traditions.
“Looking at the numbers and the key source markets, of course (Saudi Arabia) and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) markets are the key for us” he said, adding that 72 percent of tourists who visited only AlUla in the Kingdom in 2022 came from these areas.
The rest of the world therefore accounted for 28 percent of visitors last year, with 11 percent from Europe alone, Al-Moallim said. The UK was a major source market, followed by France, Italy and Germany. Places outside of Europe, including the US and China, were lower on the list.
Antony Doucet, chief experience officer at Kerten Hospitality, participated in the World Travel Market, where he represented AlUla’s Dar Tantora House Hotel and the Cloud7 Residence. The latter opened in December last year and is set to increase its capacity to 300 rooms, which will make it the largest hotel in AlUla, while the former is set to open on Jan. 15, with 30 keys, he said.
“We don’t like to call (Dar Tantora) a hotel, rather a ‘hospitality experience’ because we’re inviting people to slow down and go back through different times of AlUla,” he said.
It will have a community and cultural manager, Doucet said, who can suggest activities inside and outside the hotel for visitors during their stay, culinary experiences that offer a chance to try traditional Saudi cuisine with a modern twist, and a spa that explores Arabian beauty secrets using natural ingredients from the area, including Peregrina oil.
“It’s also a very personalized and custom-made experience,” he added, as guest will be contacted a week before arrival to help staff better understand the purposes of their stay, their personalities, and their tastes in music and literature.
“It’s also important to note that we have limited electricity,” said Doucet. “We will have only two electric plugs per room, no air conditioning but natural ventilation, and we will be, I think, the first hotel to have drinkable water from the tap,” which will be purified on site.
This reflects the hotel’s commitment to sustainable tourism in AlUla and to the protection of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, he added.
Art will also play an important role at Dar Tantora, where a unique art collection, including bespoke pieces currently being created, will be on display. In addition, it will offer about 10 retail spaces.
Husaak Adventures was one of the tour operators promoting its activities in AlUla during the event in London where, for a second year, it was part of the Kingdom’s pavilion.
The company is an “activator” that works with the Royal Commission and other Saudi government entities to create a range of experiences and services, said Nikki McDonnell, its director of sales and marketing. These include hiking and mountain-biking trails, “glamping” resorts, visitor centers, accommodation solutions, stargazing events, and other adventures and cultural experiences designed to appeal to local and international visitors.
The Saudi-registered business was founded about 10 years ago when there were relatively few tourists or any significant adventure-tourism sector in the region, she said, but now the Kingdom has become a “pioneer” in the field, and the growth and “development they have had in the last couple of years is amazing, and there’s so much opportunity to develop further jewels of Saudi Arabia.”
She added: “We have since developed, and now we offer, over 14 different daily experiences for visitors, as well as the glamping and accommodation solutions that offer affordable accommodation within what is known as a luxury destination.”
AlUla has incredible history, McDonnell said, and one of its key tourist attractions is the ancient Incense Road in Hegra, also known as Mada’in Saleh.
“There’s a big misconception that Saudi Arabia is very hot and it’s only a seasonal destination — it’s not,” she said. The climate and landscape are so diverse that travelers can visit all year round to explore the country’s “rich heritage,” she added.
McDonnell said part of Husaak’s focus is on increasing consumer awareness of AlUla, so while it works with other destination-management and travel companies to package its experiences and programs for visitors, it also carries out a lot of digital marketing in its own right.
“We are on Tripadvisor, our glamping is on Booking.com, we invest in Google heavily to target visitors before they come into the country, (we are) on social media to drive our traffic, and we also advertise annually with National Geographic,” she said.
“Can we develop more experiences, more unforgettable experiences? Yes, and that’s our goal as a company, just to continue to drive and build those experiences and build a legacy for visitors.”
Imad Sulaiman, the general manager of Athaar Arabia, a pioneering destination-management company in the Kingdom, said: “Despite the COVID years, Saudi Arabia is an amazing destination, and with Vision 2030 announcing the (introduction of the) tourist visa, (the country) has strongly found its way onto the tourist map around the world, so this has been a very good achievement over the past three years.
“We are lucky because everybody is talking about Saudi Arabia; the gigaprojects, sports activities and other huge efforts which the Saudi Tourism Authority is doing with other stakeholders … to show Saudi Arabia to the world. They went beyond our expectations.”
Tourism Minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb announced at the Future Investment Initiative forum in Riyadh this month an increased target of attracting 150 million tourists a year by 2030. Sulaiman said it is a target that can “be achieved because Saudi Arabia is a new destination to travelers” and is attracting a lot of interest due to the massive development projects that are helping to support businesses in the tourism sector.
“I call Saudi Arabia a hidden jewel because it’s not shown to the world,” he said, but now “we have a huge demand from different tour operators requesting different types of business or traveler packages to their clients,” from high-end experiences to adventure holidays.
Thanks to the “good news” about the Kingdom’s potential and in-progress bids to host World Expo 2030, the 2034 FIFA World Cup and the Winter Olympics, together with the major sporting events it already hosts, including Formula One and Formula E, “all these projects give us big power to work hard to be able to achieve this target,” Sulaiman said.
He added that he is “proud of all these things” because he worked in the sector in the days before Vision 2030, and all the developments that have followed since it was announced in 2016 have been “beyond our expectation — it’s amazing.”


Egypt begins process for privatization of airports

Egypt begins process for privatization of airports
Updated 04 March 2024
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Egypt begins process for privatization of airports

Egypt begins process for privatization of airports
  • Egypt is due to set an international tender for operating Egyptian airports, which include Cairo International Airport

RIYADH: Egypt began the executive process for offering the management and operation of Egyptian airports to the private sector, a Cabinet statement said on Monday.

Egypt is due to set an international tender for operating Egyptian airports, which include Cairo International Airport, the country’s Civil Aviation Minister Mohamed Abbas Helmy has said.

Egypt is set to transition the management and operations of critical logistics and transportation entities to the private sector, starting with the aviation industry. 

In November 2023, Egyptian Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly declared that seaports, dry ports and airports would be offered to private sector management in the near future. 

Madbouly highlighted a strong commitment to fostering partnerships with private entities in the stewardship and operational aspects of mass transit systems.

An integrated strategy has been formulated by the Egyptian Transport Ministry, in collaboration with global corporations, to begin localization of the industry. 

In July 2023, Egypt’s efforts to bolster its private sector and empower small and medium enterprises received $533.7 million in support from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development as it undertakes massive privatization and restructuring measures for the public sector.  

Under the umbrella of Egypt 2022-2027 strategy, launched by the Minister of International Cooperation Rania Al-Mashat in March 2022, the EBRD approved development financing worth $400 million for the National Bank of Egypt to support SMEs, focusing on regional companies led or owned by young entrepreneurs.  

The bank also approved funding worth $100 million for Banque Misr to improve financing for SMEs in a way that promotes inclusive and sustainable growth. In addition, it aims to increase funding to SMEs in areas with limited access to financial services.

The EBRD also approved another funding for the Mediterrania Capital IV Fund at a value of €30.2 million ($33.7 million).


NHC signs deals to revolutionize Saudi real estate sector with innovative technologies

NHC signs deals to revolutionize Saudi real estate sector with innovative technologies
Updated 04 March 2024
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NHC signs deals to revolutionize Saudi real estate sector with innovative technologies

NHC signs deals to revolutionize Saudi real estate sector with innovative technologies

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s National Housing Co. signed two agreements at LEAP 2024, aiming to support real estate activities in the Kingdom by crafting unique business intelligence solutions.

The deal were signed with data science company Quant and Paseetah Tech Solutions to empower technologies in the real estate market to enhance services provided to customers interested in making investments, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

The chief of solutions sector, Rayan Al-Aql, represented the National Housing Co. in signing the agreement, while Quant CEO Ahmed Bukhamseen and Omar Al-Omar, CEO of Paseetah Tech Solutions, represented their respective companies.

The agreements aim to enable modern technologies in the real estate sector by leveraging information owned by the NHC to contribute to creating unique solutions serving the market.

This includes generating more accurate real estate analytics, supporting innovation in data analysis, and creating real estate indicators that enhance the market’s reliance on data in property decisions. This facilitates informed decision-making for investors and buyers, the SPA reported.

NHC is showcasing its services and technological achievements at the LEAP conference currently underway in Riyadh. 

These achievements have benefited over 10 million people across eight government digital platforms. 

The company has also documented more than 9 million residential and commercial lease contracts, achieved over 6.5 million downloads for the “Sakani” application, operated and developed the “Balady” platform under the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs and Housing, among other technological accomplishments associated with the digital platforms operated and developed by the NHC.

Earlier in February, the National Housing Co. announced that it would build a total of 3,800 homes after forging six partnership agreements worth SR2 billion ($533 million). 

These deals, which were signed with several real estate developers, aim to build residential units in the Riyadh southwestern community of Al-Asalah, with prices starting from SR475,000, according to the Saudi Press Agency. 

SPA added that this initiative is part of a comprehensive program of urban development spearheaded by the NHC aiming to revolutionize the housing landscape by introducing innovative concepts and integrated services, ultimately enhancing the quality of life across all sectors of society.


Saudi Arabia named ‘most improved country overall’ in US Chamber of Commerce IP Index

Saudi Arabia named ‘most improved country overall’ in US Chamber of Commerce IP Index
Updated 04 March 2024
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Saudi Arabia named ‘most improved country overall’ in US Chamber of Commerce IP Index

Saudi Arabia named ‘most improved country overall’ in US Chamber of Commerce IP Index

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has received recognition as “the most improved country overall” in the 12th edition of the US Chamber of Commerce International Intellectual Property Index. 

Released on March 2, the report emphasizes the several achievements of the Kingdom, with Vice President of Middle East Affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce Steve Lutes telling Arab News that Saudi Arabia has made significant strides in the technology sector over the past year.

“Specifically, I think this year the Kingdom did sign on to some important international treaties and they’ve made some other progress on both the enforcement side and some other of the indicators,” Lutes said on the sidelines of the LEAP 2024 conference.

“The Kingdom moving up in ranking gives more confidence to investors,” he added. 

Lutes went on to say that the body aims to encourage partnerships with the business community, government, and academia in Saudi Arabia to drive the establishment of a diversified, knowledge-based economy aligned with Vision 2030.

The US Chamber of Commerce considers over 50 indices when ranking countries, Lutes added. 

“Some of this looks very marginal. But really, when you think about it from an economic perspective, these are very important drivers because these are the sorts of things that companies look at. Is my IP going to be safe? Is it going to be protected? Are rules going to be enforced? And that’s where you get the investment in value and innovation,” said the vice-president.

The Kingdom allocates a total of $2 million across all funding rounds dedicated to artificial intelligence companies and over $3 billion proportional to gross domestic product with a ranking position of 31 in the Global AI index.

“We’ve been looking at this as governments around the globe start to grapple with the regulatory frameworks for artificial intelligence. The Chamber commissioned a report that was largely targeted toward a domestic audience and had some policy recommendations in that,” said Lutes.

A report by the European Centre for International Political Economy and the US Chamber of Commerce, titled “The Opportunity of Artificial Intelligence: Boosting Productivity and Growth in Saudi Arabia,” will be released in March.

The study will include a breakdown covering the benefits of AI for the Kingdom, endowments and digital industry structures, and AI policies going forward. 

“It has some sector-by-sector analysis where we think it can be the most impactful. In my mind, though, the biggest message is for policymakers,” Lutes said, adding: “One of those is investing, for example, in human capital. You have to have the workforce that’s ready to take on these technologies and bring it to government processes, to business processes and see it diffuse. So, when it comes to the sectors, I think, you know, healthcare and education are two that are highlighted in particular as having the most upside.”

Lutes added this is his first time attending LEAP, which is now in its third edition, and the Chamber has been collaborating with the Ministry of Communications and the Saudi Authority for Data and Artificial Intelligence. 

“We are at the LEAP Conference and IP is so fundamental to that. So, kudos to the Kingdom this year. And I guess our message is let’s not rest on our laurels. Let’s continue to work together to see if we can continue to see the Kingdom climb in that index as well,” he concluded. 

LEAP, held in Riyadh from March 4-7, is an annual premier tech event founded in 2022 by the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology. It convenes leading professionals from the sector to deliberate on the industry’s future and the innovative opportunities ahead.


Riyadh forum explores Saudi-Brazil business, trade ties

Riyadh forum explores Saudi-Brazil business, trade ties
Updated 04 March 2024
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Riyadh forum explores Saudi-Brazil business, trade ties

Riyadh forum explores Saudi-Brazil business, trade ties
  • South American country ‘an important trading partner’ for the Kingdom, says envoy
  • Joint council launched after Brazilian president’s visit late last year

LONDON: The Saudi-Brazilian Business Forum in Riyadh was attended by more than 150 investors from both countries on Monday, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

The event, hosted by the Federation of Saudi Chambers and Brazil’s Lide Group, aimed to improve business and trade ties.

Dr. Faisal Ghulam, Saudi ambassador to Brazil, delivered a speech at the forum in which he praised the strong economic relations between the two countries built over 55 years.

He described Brazil as “an important trading partner” for the Kingdom. Annual trade between the two countries stands at $8 billion.

Ghulam lauded the establishment of a Saudi-Brazilian coordination council following President Lula da Silva’s visit to the Kingdom late last year.

Saudi Vision 2030 is providing Brazilian investors with significant opportunities, paving the way for improved trade ties, said Luiz Fernando Furlan, chairman of Lide’s board.

The newly established council will “work to advance the partnership, overcome challenges, and facilitate visas for the business communities from the two countries,” said its Chairman Mishal bin Hithlain.

Lide chief Joao Doria called on the Brazilian business community to explore the “great investment opportunities” available in the Kingdom through Vision 2030.

The forum covered key sectors at the heart of trade between the two countries, including aviation, energy, logistics, mining, agriculture, real estate and healthcare. It was the first event hosted by Lide after the firm opened offices in Riyadh.

The company’s Saudi representative, Malik Al-Qahtani, pledged to serve the business sectors of both countries and improve the ease of operations for Saudi and Brazilian investors.


Saudi aviation professions localization plan enters 2nd phase

Saudi aviation professions localization plan enters 2nd phase
Updated 04 March 2024
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Saudi aviation professions localization plan enters 2nd phase

Saudi aviation professions localization plan enters 2nd phase

RIYADH: The number of Saudi flight attendants and fixed-wing pilots is set to increase as the localization plan for the Kingdom’s aviation sector enters its second phase.

The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development, in collaboration with the Ministry of Transport and Logistic Services, has announced the implementation of the second phase of localizing licensed aviation professions in private sector establishments employing five or more individuals in targeted aviation professions.

In the second phase, the HRSD has specified the professions targeted, setting a 60 percent target for flight attendants and a 70 percent ratio for fixed-wing pilots, contingent on employees in the aviation professions obtaining the professional accreditation certificate from the General Authority of Civil Aviation.

The Ministry of Transport has reiterated its commitment to overseeing the implementation of the program’s second phase. It aims to enable private sector establishments to leverage all support and employment programs offered by the Human Resources and Social Development System to aid in the recruitment and retention of national talent.

The HRSD has issued procedural guidelines explaining the details of the decision, its implementation, and the support and employment programs provided to private sector establishments.

Speaking to Arab News on the sidelines of the Saudi Airport Exhibition, held at the Riyadh International Convention and Exhibition Center in December 2023, Mervat Sultan, president of the Women in Aviation Middle East Chapter, noted a significant boom, with an increase in airports, establishment of new airlines, and a rising number of tourists. 

She added that the aviation industry in Saudi Arabia is “becoming bigger and bigger and would be leading the industry in the next 20 years.”

In 2022, Ahmed Al-Rajhi, minister of HRSD, issued a notification nationalizing a number of professions and economic activities — including licensed aviation professions, opticians, and periodic inspection activity, as well as postal service outlets and more. 

The decision to localize licensed aviation professions was announced to be implemented in two phases. The first one became effective on March 15, 2023.

In line with its Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia is undertaking an ambitious initiative to empower its citizens and boost their global competitiveness.