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Heritage Tourism, Sustainability and Community in AlUla

Heritage Tourism, Sustainability and Community in AlUla

Co-authors Richard Wilding and Elisabeth Dodinet have spent their careers working with intangible cultural heritage, Richard as a writer and filmmaker in the Middle East and Elisabeth as an archaeo-ethno-botanist conducting research on aromatic plants.

Speaking via Zoom from an office in the town of AlUla in northwest Saudi Arabia, three young women talk excitedly of the changes they have witnessed over the past five years. “For the first time I feel like I have a future here,” says Alaa Alharbi. “Before, my only choice was to leave my home and look for work far away.” The same is true for her two colleagues, Amjad Alhusayni and AlHanoof Shaker, also from AlUla. All three describe how in the past they would have needed to leave AlUla, and possibly the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia entirely, to find opportunities that would match their skills and ambition.

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 shifted their trajectories. The initiative was a bold response to an urgent need for the Kingdom’s economic diversification for a future beyond oil. With the initiative came societal transformation, bringing women like Alaa and her colleagues expanded opportunities in the workforce, and encouraging young Saudis to follow new career pathways.

Before Vision 2030, oil dominated life in Saudi Arabia. It was first discovered in commercial quantities at Dammam Well No. 7—“Prosperity Well,” as it is now called—in 1938. In the eight decades that followed, the Kingdom’s economy became highly dependent on oil.  For many of those years, with neglect of cultural heritage —perhaps, suggested Alaa Alharbi, because it reminded people of a difficult past that had been replaced by more modern lifestyles and fashions. “We used to just pass by the Old City. We knew our ancestor’s houses and shops were there, but for us it was just a memory, there was nothing to do or see.”

There was no money in old buildings or dying traditional crafts because there was no tourism and, therefore, little incentive for cultural heritage to be sustained. While a few older people held on to traditions that had been passed down for centuries, the younger generation had little interest in them. As with Alaa Alharbi and her classmates, many young people—especially women—saw their future outside the Kingdom altogether.

Vision 2030 changed that. Some of its megaprojects have attracted international attention, such as Neom—an urban development site to feature a floating industrial complex, a global trade hub, and even a ski resort, as well as The Line, a 170-meter-long city in Neom to be linked by a single high-speed rail line and run on 100% renewable energy. Meanwhile, the transfer of superstar footballers such as Cristiano Ronaldo to Saudi Arabia has captivated the world’s sports media.

One of Vision 2030’s most tangible impacts, however, has been the introduction of tourism, with the first tourist visas issued in 2019. Traditional heritage and archaeology, which are among the top attractions for visitors, are being allocated funding—for the restoration and revitalisation of the old districts of Jeddah and Diriyah, for example, and the development of sustainable resorts in Asir and AlUla.

The Revitalisation of AlUla

Nestled among red sandstone mountains, AlUla has been a centre of human habitation and cultural development for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence suggests that AlUla has a history dating back to at least the 6th millennium BCE, making it one of the oldest settlements in the Arabian Peninsula. Over the centuries, the city has been home to various civilisations, including the Dadanites, Lihyanites, Nabataeans, and Romans, each leaving their distinct imprint on the region’s cultural and architectural heritage.

One of the most renowned features of AlUla is the archaeological site of Hegra. Recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra contains over 100 tombs carved into its rocky outcrops that provide valuable insights into the Nabataean civilisation, which also thrived in Hegra’s sister city of Petra in present-day Jordan.

AlUla’s strategic location at the crossroads of major ancient trade routes—including the Incense Route and caravan routes that connected the Arabian Peninsula to Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Levant—made it an important hub for merchants and travellers, facilitating the exchange of commodities such as spices, precious metals, textiles, and agricultural products, and contributing to the economic prosperity of the region.

The ruins of AlUla Old Town, photographed by Richard Wilding in 2015.

Until recently, the historic old town of AlUla sat deserted. Local inhabitants had moved out to more modern homes in nearby Jadidah (literally “the new one”) and Sukhayrat, abandoning their previous residences. The state of the old town was tragic in contrast to AlUla’s rich history as a thriving centre for international trade and cultural exchange.

The Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) was established in 2017 to transform AlUla into a global destination for heritage, natural beauty, art, and culture. A flagship project of the RCU’s masterplan is to rejuvenate AlUla’s Old Town and its tightly packed network of historical buildings, together with the surrounding natural oasis.

Since the project began in December 2020, restoration and development work has started on 300 out of the old town’s 900 historical buildings. Around one-third of these are being stabilised and made safe for visitors to explore, while the rest will be fully restored to allow for their activation as hotels, shops, cafes, and cultural venues such as museums, galleries, and performance spaces.

One group of twelve restored buildings hosts “Huna,” a co-working space, which opened in late 2023 (shown in the headline image). Its vision is to provide local creative businesses and freelancers with offices, meeting rooms, workshops, cafes, and galleries to develop and promote their work. The complex will accommodate up to 200 entrepreneurs and will also host visiting consultants working on the heritage and tourism development of AlUla, leading to valuable cross-fertilisation of ideas and experience.

The local community is helping to ensure that AlUla continues to thrive year round, even during the blazing summers when few international tourists dare to brave the heat. Two-thirds of the businesses are owned or staffed by locals, meaning that AlUla thrives as a genuine community—living intangible heritage—rather than devolving into a “heritage theme park” as do so many tourist towns.

Fostering entrepreneurial spirit

Hanan AlBalawi opened her jewellery store in AlUla in 2019, just as the country welcomed tourists for the first time. From an early age, Hanan was fascinated by her father’s passion for semi-precious stones. After attending school and college in AlUla, she decided to turn her father’s hobby into a business and trained in jewellery making at AlUla’s Madrasat Addeera. This community project teaches local women a range of traditional handicrafts in partnership with The King’s Foundation School of Traditional Arts and the Turquoise Mountain Foundation.

“The Old Town was a desolate place,” Hanan says, speaking of the Old Town she remembers growing up. “It was somewhere we would drive past without stopping. It was not possible to safely explore it as we can now, and there was nothing open.”

Interestingly, Hanan confirms that around 80% of her sales are to Saudi nationals. “I think the increased use of social media meant that people grew tired of culture that did not have authenticity and searched instead for local culture that connected them to their roots.” In her five-year business development plan, Hanan plans to open her next store in Riyadh, already looking ahead to the World Expo in 2030.

Hanan also talks passionately about how her business has strengthened her family relationships, including with her father, who often spends days working alongside her in the workshop, and her two sisters who have also joined the business. “I really wouldn’t know what I would be doing now if the recent changes had not happened here,” she reflects. “I am sure I would not still be in AlUla.” The Old Town’s revitalisation in recent years seems to be reinforcing the traditional family unit in some ways, providing opportunity to bring generations closer together and reducing tensions caused by frustrated ambitions.

Guides for a Changing Landscape

With many touristic destinations, the main job open to members of the local community is that of the ubiquitous tour guide. Although this requires extensive knowledge of history and archaeology, as well as strong language skills, the role usually offers little opportunity for career progression. However, in AlUla, the Rawis—meaning storytellers in Arabic—are being trained and then promoted into management positions, leading to longer-term growth opportunities and a greater integration of external and local expertise in the town’s strategic development.

Adel Alanazi comes from a Bedouin family of the AlUla region, which settled in the city around 30 years ago. After studying for a degree in business administration in nearby Tabuk, Adel was able to return to AlUla, taking a job with the RCU. “My cousins and older brothers had to leave for Riyadh or Jeddah to have a good job, as there were few opportunities here in AlUla. But after 2017, everything changed, and now the world is coming to AlUla.” Speaking about the impact he has seen since the RCU was established six years ago, Adel explains that “the biggest transformation has been in the creation of jobs, but perhaps more importantly the choices now available to us in AlUla. You can take a government job if you wish, but you can also work in the private sector, or set up a business yourself.”

Adel works with the RCU as a manager supervising and training forty Rawis who cover AlUla as well as the nearby oases of Khaybar and Tayma. The Rawis, both men and women, are encouraged to talk about their personal experiences, meaning that visitors connect the history of AlUla and its recent revitalisation with the story of its modern inhabitants.

Visitors are keen to learn more about a country and its society that was, until recently, inaccessible to international tourists. According to Adel, “it is only four years since the first tourist visas were issued, and they ask so many questions about the changes that have taken place here.” The rapid pace of change means that visitors with expectations based on writings from just five years ago will find their information on the Kingdom to be largely out of date.

Remembering AlUla as it used to be, Adel says “The Old Town was like a ghost-town, the last place people would want to visit. Now it is somewhere I would never want to leave.”

Saudi Arabia’s Moringa peregrina 

The Royal Commission for AlUla has also supported grassroots environmental projects, such as the Moringa peregrina initiative. This has been undertaken in partnership with the French Agency for AlUla Development, which has provided further expertise and training.

Moringa peregrina tree

The Moringa peregrina tree and its precious oils are intimately linked to the history of AlUla. Greek, Roman, and Arab physicians recognised peregrina’s medicinal and nutritional properties, and its cultivation contributed significantly to the economic prosperity of the region. The plant’s leaves, seeds, and bark have been utilised in traditional medicine, and its oil has been extracted for various purposes, including perfume, cooking, and skincare.

AlUla’s strategic location on a key intersection of ancient trade routes made it a hub for the exchange of goods and knowledge. In early Islamic times, envoys from the Umayyad caliph’s court travelled to Wadi Al-Qurah in the south of AlUla to buy the finest peregrina bân oil. Moringa peregrina’s history underscores the interconnectedness of culture, trade, and agriculture in AlUla, establishing the plant as an integral part of the region’s heritage.

There is also a long-standing relationship between peregrina and the local communities in AlUla. The tree’s resilient nature and adaptability to arid conditions have contributed to the development of sustainable agriculture in the region. Over the centuries, knowledge about the cultivation and usage of Moringa peregrina has been passed down through generations, shaping local traditions and practices.

The Moringa peregrina initiative is now regulating the cultivation, harvest, and manufacture of Moringa-based products to ensure its quality and consistency. The initiative is also coordinating branding and distribution to re-establish Moringa peregrina internationally as an authentic artisanal product of Saudi Arabia. The community oriented and ecologically sustainable focus of the project appeals to discerning international tourists and yields economic, social, and environmental benefits for local communities.

A Growing AlUla

The recent developments in AlUla help connect the community with its ancient past as well as with future opportunities. Concluding our Zoom call, Alaa Alharbi, Amjad Alhusayni, and AlHanoof Shaker mention a new language institute, which opened in AlUla two years ago. Alaa says, “They teach not only English, French, Chinese, and other languages needed to communicate with our international visitors and trading partners, but also the ancient Nabatean language that is used in the rock inscriptions here from 2,000 years ago.”

The three women have found new opportunities in AlUla. Having left their hometown to study science and chemistry at university, all three were able to return and take up roles in business development and quality control with the Moringa peregrina initiative. Although they recognise greater opportunities available to them compared to previous generations of women in Saudi Arabia, Amjad was also keen to emphasise that “women already worked, but in a limited number of fields. Our mothers worked as teachers and in hospitals and were well known and respected for this in AlUla. But it was not visible.” She paused, then continued, “The difference now is that many more opportunities are open to us and in more public roles.”

Alaa, Amjad, and AlHanoof are symbolic of the ambitious young Saudis now enriching the Kingdom’s workforce. Thanks to the revitalisation of AlUla and, specifically, the Moringa peregrina initiative, they are now able to pursue their ambitions and develop careers while staying close to their family and community. “I’m so happy that I’ve been able to stay here,” says Amjad. “Now, I no longer need to leave in order to grow. AlUla and I can grow together.”

The opinions expressed are those of the contributor, not of the RSAA.

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