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Travel & Wellness

Saudi Arabia: from petrodollars to luxury tourism

Luxury seaside resorts, design hotels by star-architect Jean Nouvel, antique treasures… Saudi Arabia pushes the envelope to seduce wealthy tourists, with one goal: to prepare its economy to a post Black Gold era.

Fabio Bonavita

By Fabio Bonavita24 novembre 2020

Aware of its tainted image on the international scene, the Wahhabi realm has decided to make luxury tourism into one of its future key sectors. Needless to say, Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salman will do what it takes to reach his objectives. The latest example was the recruitment of French architect Jean Nouvel. His mission: to design a touristic luxury resort within Al-‘Ula, a city carved in stone, in the Northwest of the country. It will include forty suites and three villas, a conference centre and fourteen private pavilions. The opening is scheduled in 2024.

The luxury hotel designed by Jean Nouvel will be located within the carved-stone city. (DR)

For Jean Nouvel, this new project called «Sharaan» will mainly need to preserve the culture and landscape heritage of its location: “Al-'Ula is a museum. Each Oued or cliff, each stretch of sand and each rock formation, each geological and archaeological site deserve the utmost care. It is vital to uphold its uniqueness and preserve each of its charms, which rely mostly on distant and sometimes archaic attributes. We need to preserve part of the mystery, as well as the promise of future discoveries. Our project will celebrate the Nabataean spirit, while never making a travesty of it. This creation act therefore becomes a true act of culture.” The Director of the Royal Commission of Al-‘Ula, Amr Al Madani, is enthusiastic: “ This concept emphasizes Jean Nouvel’s major innovation in the architectural field, highlights our commitment in developing the Al-‘Ula site as a global touristic destination without jeopardizing its history, heritage or landscape. The Sharaan resort will benefit from this heritage as a way of becoming a timeless and permanent architectural landscape.”

Al-'Ula, a 7,000-year-old marvel. (DR)

The wave of authenticity

Saudi Arabia is a fast learner and has the means to operate

Quentin Desurmont, founder of the Traveller Made label

Saudi Arabia’s will to open up to wealthy travellers doesn’t come as a surprise to Quentin Desurmont, founder of the French-Swiss agency Peplum, and of the Traveller Made label : “Saudi Arabia’s GDP diversification strategy encompasses a large part about incoming tourism. Al-'Ula is one of its strong suits. Very few people have actually seen the Nabataean site, cousin to Petra, up close. The will to surf on its authentic sides rather than on the bling aspect is very smart in order to reach a high-end European clientele wanting to discover more. Many activities (hot-air balloons, buggy in the dessert, pop-up restaurants) created around Al-'Ula make it a very attractive location.” Yet he ponders: “Saudi Arabia has weaknesses at the moment when it comes to incoming tourism: lack of transparency, touchy past affairs, lack of freedom, no alcohol, no previous proof of being capable to deliver true luxury services. Hospitality in Al-‘Ula is another weakness. During my stay there last January, hotels were mediocre and extremely expensive. Local service was very bad. But Saudi Arabia is a fast learner and has the means to operate.”

Saudi Arabia’s touristic ambitions seem limitless. (DR)

The country has signed a partnership with the luxury hotel group Aman. The group will open three hotel resorts by 2023. A first in the Middle-East as reminded by Vladislav Doronin, CEO of Aman: “A great number of our Aman destinations are located in regions with exceptional natural beauty and have a rich history. With the addition of this exceptional site in Al-‘Ula, we will have ten properties located near or on a site listed as UNESCO World Heritage, which explains the choice of our first Middle-Eastern destination.”

The Ummahat AlShaykh islands are looking like the next luxury resort destination. (DR)

Seaside resorts for the wealthy

The Al-'Ula site crystallizes the touristic ambitions of the country, as another gigantic construction site has been launched in the Red Sea by the Red Sea Development company, a business that belongs to the Saudi sovereign fund. It aims at opening an ultra-luxury seaside resort in 2022, located off the coasts of Jeddah. The first development phase will include fourteen luxury hotels with 3,000 rooms spanning over five islands, as well as an airport specifically built for wealthy travellers. Initiatives that show tourism is definitely one of the main reform pillars driven by the Crown Prince. He hopes to attract 100 million visitors in Saudi Arabia by 2030.

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