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Winter at Tantora: Where Tourism Begins in Saudi Arabia

Al-Fareed Rock in Mada'in Saleh

Al-Fareed Rock in Mada'in Saleh

Saudi Arabia's opening to tourism was a promise of Crown Prince Mohammed ben Salmane's Vision 2030. Although the Kingdom has not yet launched tourist visas in 2019, it has been carrying out an unprecedented experiment in this field in recent weeks.

In the oasis of Al-Ula, in the northwest of the country, a festival called Winter at Tantora has been held every weekend since December 21, in homage to Tantora, a monument in the city of Al-Ula used as a sundial to determine the winter solstice. The event, led by the Royal Commission for Al-Ula (RCU), offers a 3-day opportunity to discover the wonders of this oasis, that was once the home of the Nabataean civilization.

Nabataean inscriptions on the rocks in the Al-Ula region
Nabataean inscriptions on the rocks in the Al-Ula region

The archaeological sites in Al-Ula region were, for the occasion, exceptionally open to a limited attendance of influencers, international media, and local residents. “We’re just in a stage-zero now, you haven’t seen anything we haven’t started” says Iman Almutairi, Marketing and Destination Manager for the Royal Commission for Al-Ula. “This is a culture an art festival and we are targeting a lot of international visitors and locals to come. Our aim is to open the destination for tourism and to mark it as an art and culture destination” she adds

A cube of mirrors in the Arabian desert

On the agenda for this first edition of Winter at Tantora, an excursion to the ruins of the ancestral kingdoms of Lihyan and Dadan, a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage sites of Mada’in Saleh, including Al-Fareed Rock, a look at the Nabatean inscriptions scattered throughout the region, a walk on the heights of Ekmah, Bedouin style lunches in breathtaking places and a tea time next to the Elephant Rock. And for thrill-seekers, an escapade by buggies in the desert and a helicopter tour.

At the foot of Elephant Rock
At the foot of Elephant Rock

Cherry on top: a classical music concert is held at Maraya, an impressive building covered with mirrors and especially set up for the festival in the middle of Al-Ula desert. “The issue that came to our mind was ‘how to insert an architecture in a place that is already perfect’” says Massimo Fogliati, project manager for Winter at Tantora. “We decided not to gcompete with the environment but to try to get the environment as much as possible in our architecture. That’s how the idea of a completely mirrored box came up” he added.

“A place too long hidden”

This first full-scale test seems, for the time being, to be a success. This is reflected in the enthusiasm of the few guests and participants, discovering Saudi Arabia as a tourist destination. “I thought this was a closed country, but I realize that people here are very open to us, very friendly. It’s really a great discovery” says Marc Nouss, a French photographer and blogger who was invited to Al-Ula among several international influencers. The same goes for Sofiya, a Russian Instagram blogger who deplores the fact that the place has been “hidden or for a long time”.

Maraya, a building covered with mirrors and located in the Mada'in Saleh desert
Maraya, a building covered with mirrors and located in the Mada’in Saleh desert

In its quest to diversify its economy, Saudi Arabia seems to have made a fair bet with tourism, even if Saudi tourism, for the time being, the kingdom remains in “its test phase”, as Iman Almutairi points out.