Saudi Arabia’s Tourism Potential—and Roadblocks—Revealed in a Posh Desert Hotel | World News - Hindustan Times
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Saudi Arabia’s Tourism Potential—and Roadblocks—Revealed in a Posh Desert Hotel

Bloomberg |
Apr 17, 2024 10:45 AM IST

Two and a half years in, Habitas AlUla, the country’s first luxury resort targeting foreigners, shows the challenges and opportunities of travel to Saudi Arabia.

At one point, as I sipped coconut milk by the infinity pool at Habitas AlUla, a resort in the remote Saudi Arabian desert, things started to feel very surreal.

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A thirtysomething in a neon thong plunged for an evening dip while Saudi families lounged nearby, resplendent in black burqas and crisp thawbs. No one seemed bothered. We were otherwise charmed by the sun sinking behind towering red monoliths, lulled by the voice of Jane Birkin wafting over the outdoor speakers, anticipating a repast of roasted Red Sea fish and vegetables. When a server brought a celebratory confection to a joyful table of 20, the entire patio joined in singing Happy Birthday.

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The juxtaposition jarred, considering Saudi Arabia began allowing women to drive just six years ago and still insists on separate poolside hours for men and women. I’d experienced that in Jeddah, where I’d just mediated a panel at a Bloomberg conference.

But that’s Habitas AlUla for you: a resort earning a reputation as an oasis of art, beauty and creative freedom for those open to discovering its charms in this unlikely destination. Its parent brand started in the most liberal of places—creating camps for Burning Man—and is planning five new properties throughout Saudi Arabia, in addition to two existing ones, backed by 1.5 billion riyals from the kingdom. This investment is part of the country’s push to rewrite its global reputation and double the annual number of tourists to 150 million by 2030, a move that would increase tourism’s portion of the economy from 3% to 10%.

The effort to bring people to AlUla continues even as key leaders there are arrested on charges of money laundering and war in the Red Sea does much to deter the casual tourist. Habitas was the first international brand of its stature to open in Saudi Arabia; when it made its debut in 2021, its bacchanalian roots made it an unexpected bedfellow for this conservative Muslim nation. Fast-forward three years, and it reflects the struggles and opportunities that come with developing tourism in such a controversial area.

Habitas co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Oliver Ripley has said he imagined that bringing his bohemian brand to Saudi Arabia would help narrow the culture gap between people living in remote towns and travelers arriving from cosmopolitan centers. It would foster dialogue and empower locals, especially women, by providing good careers in hospitality. That may not be panning out; many employees I encountered came from Africa, Asia or other Arab states. Just 29% of Habitas staff are local hires, a spokesperson says.

The challenges extend to visitors, too. The logistics and expense of visiting this wilderness are almost prohibitive—and that’s after you’ve made the sometimes difficult decision to go at all.

Considerations include the 2018 assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi; that any sex outside of marriage faces a possible maximum penalty of death, though as of 2019, unmarried foreign couples can share a hotel room; and a lack of clarity when it comes to the safety and treatment of LGBTQ people.

Though homosexuality is outlawed, active if under-the-radar homosexual communities in Riyadh and Jeddah do exist, and I met LGBTQ travelers in AlUla who told me they felt safe but weren’t especially “out.” One mentioned they may have felt less comfortable had they been traveling with a partner. A Habitas spokesperson says all people are welcome at the brand’s resorts.

And yet, upon arrival the intrepid traveler will find that Habitas AlUla feels attractively liberated. When cities from Tokyo to Tulum can seem stuffed with tourists, and even Istanbul and Ibiza sell generic kitsch, this post along an ancient trade route still feels unexploited and full of potential.

I stayed there two nights; I want to go back. Compared with AlUla, Tulum might as well be Times Square.

Getting There

It took about a month, with Bloomberg’s help, to obtain my single-entry visa. Although Saudi Arabia has eased entry norms from 60 countries with its eVisa program, the approval process remains onerous. The journey itself is also long: AlUla is a 32-hour trip from Los Angeles.

The wood-lined private villas at Habitas cost from $800 to $1,200 per night; Airstream trailer caravans, located a brief car ride away, start at $410. For women, bringing a headscarf is smart—not only out of respect for local mores, but also to protect your hair and skin from the intense elements.

To get there, fly into the AlUla airport, which has limited international flights but closer proximity than the larger Medina airport. I flew into the latter and encountered dense crowds of elderly pilgrims making the Hajj in robes, sandals and fanny packs.

Four hours later, I arrived at Habitas reception dusty and dehydrated.

That’s four hours nonstop at about 100 mph on a two-lane highway set in a sea of sand, punctuated by the odd camel herd and dilapidated cinder-block shelter. Saleem, a Pakistani who’d worked at Habitas for several months, had retrieved me at the airport in a black Chevrolet SUV. His goodwill was evident, despite my inability to speak Arabic, which was reassuring as we flew over what felt like the surface of Mars and seemed about as remote.

Desert Oasis

AlUla is a market oasis along the ancient incense route that linked India and the Persian Gulf to Europe. The town’s walled portion dates to the sixth century B.C., but the rust-colored mud-brick and stone houses in the old area were inhabited as recently as the 1980s.

Habitas’ resort is hidden outside town amid rock formations that tower like New York City skyscrapers. There’s no grass, only sand and the occasional tree to punctuate the aridity.

After a welcome ceremony that included “setting an intention” while smoke from smoldering resin wafted around me, a concierge described the activities offered on-site. They might as well have been off the menu of any boho-chic hotel in Isla Holbox, Mexico: Tibetan tapping, trampoline workouts, yoga, sound baths, stargazing.

Except for perhaps the Al Tajdid Al Arabi exfoliation and chakra balancing I’d booked in the wellness center with Kiki—a holistic-care specialist from Rwanda—from a Western perspective, reports of Habitas AlUla as Saudi Arabia’s Burning Man are exaggerated.

It offers neither drugs nor alcohol, in accordance with the substances’ verboten status nationwide, though the waitstaff at the open-air bar will make you delectable cerulean mocktails of coconut, pineapple and orange juice and blue curaçao. Here, the debauchery of Burning Man is replaced by conversation, like the late night I spent drinking tea poolside with a South African novelist and a pair of Spanish sisters who founded their own venture capital firm. We discussed life in Dubai, Richard Branson’s investment decisions, the future of blockchain.

My villa, one of 96 on the property, included a private deck shaded by sailcloth and dotted with pillows and rugs. The minibar heaved with cold teas and juices, nuts and dried fruits, dark chocolate and chips. The air conditioner was blowing ice cubes. The showers both indoor and outdoor were only marginally less inviting than the wide bed festooned with fresh white sheets and pillows.

Habitas AlUla lacks the conveniences of many resorts, such as televisions, room service and daily newspapers, though the Wi-Fi is lightning-fast. In town you’ll find rudimentary homes and MacGyvered Toyotas, not chic boutiques or happening restaurants. Outside the resort’s confines lies the dusty real world, not some luxury experience.

It’s the feeling of separateness that gives this place an extra air of unearthliness.

Out in AlUla

AlUla’s old labyrinth is where farming tribes lived for more than 2,000 years. Salem, my guide for the day, had grown up nearby and was pursuing a business degree in New York before Covid-19 forced him to return. We walked tiny alleys where generations traded, kept animals and sought safety from invaders. I bought tiny woven bracelets for my nieces. I shared camel’s milk and chocolate chip cookies with the lovely Bedoor, another local guide who joined us.

Then I ventured to Hegra, the more exclusive and extraordinary sister site to Petra in Jordan. Hegra boasts more than 100 tombs scattered throughout the landscape—towering caverns with eagles and snakes and faces carved on them by the Nabataeans, who chiseled the vaults into the sunbaked rock to store their bodies for heaven. Mohammed, a whiz photographer and drone operator, drove me through barren scrub in his restored Land Rover Defender. His family used to picnic there before it was designated as Saudi Arabia’s first Unesco World Heritage property.

These experts were among those hired to fill some of the 38,000 jobs AlUla aims to create as part of the kingdom’s plan for the region to contribute $32 billion to gross domestic product and increase the population from nearly 50,000 to 130,000 by 2035. I will long remember their enthusiasm in sharing their history and lifestyle and in wanting to hear about mine.

Beauty of Tradition

As for hotel guests, when I visited in the days before Ramadan they included a young German couple and a pair of fiftysomething blondes. A manager from Lebanon told me Arab, Chinese and European visitors abound, but rarely Americans. Roughly 80% of guests are Saudi, he said. I suspect it has to do with the apprehensions of visiting a country with a history of human-rights abuses, as well as to base Islamophobia. Both stand as major challenges when it comes to Saudi Arabia’s goal of overhauling its image.

As an outsider, it’s difficult to reconcile the country’s atrocities with its abundant charms. It’s a mix of strict morality rules along with vast wealth and a fresh generation of young people intensely motivated to create a more open life. To wit: On March 27, when the United Nations named Saudi Arabia chair of the UN commission to promote gender equality and empower women around the world, leaders at Amnesty International simultaneously decried the country’s “abysmal” track record of oppressing women. Meanwhile, the irony that Saudi Arabia has more abortion protections than do some US states isn’t lost on me.

I’m well aware that privileged foreign travelers like myself too easily remain in a curated fairy tale that obscures a darker side. I can only speak from my positive experience there, knowing it’s foolish and futile to paint an entire nation in a single broad stroke.

Here’s what I told friends when I returned home: In Saudi Arabia, I saw the strength and beauty of ancient traditions related to family, faith and hospitality. The challenges of arriving; its strange, silent remoteness; its respect for the spiritual, unseen world; and even the lack of alcohol only served to enhance the experience.

The activity at Habitas that captivated me most was the stargazing. My first night, after a dinner of nagel fish, corn and grilled haloumi, I found my way to a circle of deep red blankets and pillows arranged around a roaring fire pit. I nestled against a soft woven throw and inhaled crisp air as the star guide recounted tribal stories in Arabic and English. He spoke of love, betrayal and loss that explained the origin of the untold millions of celestial realms glimmering above. It felt far more mystical than any encampment I’ve joined in Tulum, Ibiza, Big Sur or Joshua Tree.

My final morning, as I climbed into Saleem’s Chevy for my return to Medina, I found myself wishing for more nights under AlUla’s stars far from the complications of the modern world and divorced from the difficulties of the nation around me. The sublime timelessness of the desert and gracious dignity of the people there had deeply affected me; I felt calm, happy and clear.

This article was generated from an automated news agency feed without modifications to text.

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