Melodious Ula-tide in Winter at Tantora

January 20, 2019

AL-ULA, Saudi Arabia — Bathed in light, musicians belt out melodies among pre-Islamic desert ruins in northwestern Saudi Arabia, a heritage trove at the center of efforts to put the Kingdom on the tourism map.

Hosted by the Al-Ula governorate — where Nabatean tombs and art are chiseled into caramel-hued rock — “Winter at Tantora” is the latest music festival in the Kingdom.

Spread over eight weekends until Feb. 9, the main events are hosted in an auditorium made of mirrored glass that has drawn international artists, from Lebanese singer Majida El Roumi to French classical violinist Renaud Capucon.

And it shines a spotlight on a long-isolated area seen widely as an open-air museum.

“Saudi Arabia is turning a new page,” said Zainab Al-Kadadi, a Riyadh-based banker.

The 29-year-old attended a musical weekend that also included sand dune bashing — an adventure sport that involves driving across challenging desert landscapes — and a tour of an Ottoman-era train station.

The festival is seen as a soft opening of Al-Ula, an area roughly the size of Belgium that is being touted as the centerpiece of Saudi attractions, as the Kingdom prepares to open up to international tourists.

Building a tourism industry from scratch is at the heart of a government plan to prepare the Arab world’s biggest economy for a post-oil era, an ambition fraught with challenges.

“The biggest obstacle is stereotypes,” said Kyle Mijlof, a 30-year-old travel photographer from Cape Town.

A liberalization drive by Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, deputy premier and minister of defense, has brought new cinemas, concerts and sporting extravaganzas.

The Kingdom organized a similar process in December for a motor sports event in Riyadh, where performances by artists like Enrique Iglesias and David Guetta were on offer.

Saudi Arabia is seeking to preserve heritage sites that predate Prophet Muhammad’s, pbuh, life in the seventh century.

With French support in Al-Ula, archeological teams are undertaking a massive survey of key sites, which includes scanning via helicopters, satellites, drones and a remote sensing technology called Lidar.

Five-star resorts are being planned to accommodate thousands of tourists. Local residents are being trained as guides.

Al-Ula is expected to fully open up to foreign tourists within three to five years, an official from the Royal Al-Ula Commission told AFP.

He added that the project aims to revive the glory of Saudi Arabia’s ancient past. “For years we were stereotyped as people who have pools of petrol in their backyards,” the official said.

“We are changing that narrative. This (project) is about national pride.” — AFP

January 20, 2019
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