Saudi Arabia: luxury travel’s next big thing

Elephant Rock in Saudi Arabia
Elephant Rock in Saudi Arabia

Not long ago, Saudi Arabia was a destination shrouded in mystery, closed off to most tourists. Today, there’s no mistaking: it’s luxury travel’s next big thing

One moment you are gazing across a rugged desert landscape, where rock walls jut dramatically out of the sun-baked sand. Then the light shifts, and suddenly a building appears. Welcome to Maraya concert hall, where mirrored panels reflect the surrounding landscape so cleverly that the structure is invisible, until you approach it from the right angle.

The venue for concerts, by the likes of Usher and Alicia Keys, is just one of the remarkable sights in Saudi Arabia’s AlUla region, which has become a global showpiece for how to create a luxury tourism destination from scratch. Just a few years ago, no-one had heard of AlUla. Now this starkly beautiful region is drawing visitors with its ancient sites,  modern architecture and gloriously luxurious desert retreats.

Ancient history

At AlUla, history is literally written on the walls. There are thousands of sites featuring inscriptions, in pre-Arabic languages such as Dadanite, Lihyanite and Aramaic, scattered across the region, but the most startling collection is at Jabal Ikmah, also known as Open Air Library, where rock art depicts the daily lives of vanished civilisations.

Just as astonishing is the ancient ruins at Hegra. We head out early one morning – mornings and evenings are the best times for sightseeing in the desert – to see the UNESCO World Heritage-listed tombs built by the ancient Nabateans, who also created Jordan’s famous city of Petra. We pile into one of a fleet of 1960s Land Rover Defender Classics to tour the site, thrilled to be the only ones here. No matter when you come (and you need to book in advance), you will never have to battle the crowds: only 40 visitors are allowed in any designated timeslot.

A visit to AlUla is about more than just touring, it’s also about relaxing. Spend the heat of the day unwinding in your room, either at the Banyan Tree AlUla with its magnificent spa and free horseback riding for guests, or at Habitas AlUla, set in its own private canyon where towering rock walls frame every view.

When the sun dips toward the horizon, it’s time to head out. We spend one sunset downing icy-cold alcohol-free beers (Saudi is a dry country) to a soundtrack of chilled Arabic beats, as the towering rock formations glow golden in the setting sun.

Another evening we head for the Oasis of AlUla, strolling through the soaring palm groves that shade lush citrus orchards. It is a favourite picnic spot for locals, but we head on to Al Jadidah and Old Town, where old buildings have been restored and turned into ateliers, boutiques and lively restaurants that make for a great evening out.

With open arms

AlUla is a flagship project for Saudi Arabia, which for many years only welcomed religious tourists visiting the Islamic holy sites of Makkah (Mecca) and Madinah (Medina). The country is now embracing the economic potential of tourism and is aiming for 100 million visitors by 2030.

To achieve that goal, the government has launched a slate of giga-projects such as NEOM in the country’s northwest. It includes Sindhala Island, a luxury island set to open next year with Four Seasons and Marriott hotels; Trojena, the Middle East’s first outdoor ski destination in the mountains above 1800 metres, which will host the 2029 Asian Winter Games; and The Line, the world’s first vertical city stretching across 170km of the desert, designed by some of the world’s leading architects including Adjaye Associates, Coop Himmelb(l)au and Studio Fuksas.

Just as ambitious is Red Sea Global, a luxury regenerative tourism destination on the west coast. Conceived as a zero-waste, zero-carbon destination, with annual visitor numbers capped at one million to limit environmental impacts, Red Sea Global includes a brand-new international airport and a number of luxury retreats including the just opened Six Senses Southern Dunes, The Red Sea, which will soon be joined by The St. Regis Red Sea Resort and Nujuma, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve.

Putting out the welcome mat for Western visitors isn’t the only change taking place in Saudi Arabia. Women’s lives have changed dramatically over the last few years, with the abolition of strict dress regulations, mandatory gender segregation and a ban on women driving. While you will still see many women wearing the niqāb, which conceals everything except the eyes, you will also see women wearing jeans and walking around with their hair uncovered. (Tourists should dress modestly, covering shoulders, elbows and knees.)

Saudi women, already well-educated, are also embracing the job opportunities in tourism. Several of our guides were women, and every woman we spoke with was exuberant at the possibilities now open to them.

Another evening we head for the Oasis of AlUla, strolling through the soaring palm groves that shade lush citrus orchards. It is a favourite picnic spot for locals, but we head on to Al Jadidah and Old Town, where old buildings have been restored and turned into ateliers, boutiques and lively restaurants that make for a great evening out.

Green cities

Saudi Arabia is planning to rely on renewables for 50 per cent of its energy by 2030, and achieve net zero by 2060.

The Green Riyadh initiative will increase green cover from 1.5 per cent to 9 per cent of the city by 2030, with the planting of 7.5 million trees, irrigated by treated wastewater, and the creation of the world’s largest urban park.

GREEN TRANSPORT, Riyadh’s new bus fleet – the first in the city – is all-electric, and the metro set to open next year will also run on renewables.

A cosmopolitan future

The most difficult thing about a trip to Saudi Arabia is putting together an itinerary, simply because there is so much to see. Our week-long trip was packed with highlights including a road trip through Wadi Disah, another spectacular rock-rimmed valley where doum palms thrive on underground springs, and where we capped our adventures with a terrific lunch in desert tents.

Then there is Riyadh, where the eye-catching new architecture of the King Abdullah Financial District contrasts with yet another World Heritage-listed site, the beautifully restored At-Turaif, the first capital of the Saudi Kingdom. At-Turaif – the centrepiece of yet another giga-project, ad-Diriyah, slated for another 38 hotels including Raffles and Aman – is another great evening destination. You can wander through the illuminated streets until midnight, taking a break to enjoy dinner at one of the restaurants on Bujairi Terrace (Maiz offers terrific modern Saudi cuisine.)

Jeddah, the cosmopolitan port city on the Red Sea, is also on the must-visit list. Hire a boat to take you snorkelling on reefs where you can spot the vivid pinks and yellows of the corals through the translucent aquamarine water. In the evening, explore Al-Balad, the World Heritage-listed Old City that dates back a thousand years.

Al-Balad was home to merchants who sat at the centre of a trade network spanning Africa, India and Asia. They used their wealth to create fabulous houses made of imported materials such as teak and mahogany, decorated with elaborate balconies and shuttered windows, that you can admire as you explore the neighbourhood’s beguiling warren of atmospheric alleyways.

Plan your trip

  • Qatar Airways offers one-stop flights from Australia to Saudi destinations including Riyadh, Jeddah and, in peak season, AlUla. See
  • You will need a Saudi e-Visa, including compulsory insurance, which costs SAR 440 (around $185).
  • Companies such as Exo Travel offer bespoke packages to help you explore the best of Saudi.
  • The best time to visit is during the cooler months, between November and March.

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