Exclusive: HN speaks with Phillip Jones, Chief Destination Management and Marketing Officer, Royal Commission for AlUla

Exclusive: HN speaks with Phillip Jones, Chief Destination Management and Marketing Officer, Royal Commission for AlUla

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A cultural site, a space for exploration and indulgence, and a true tourism destination, AlUla is becoming a Saudi must-visit attraction. HN spoke with Phillip Jones, chief destination management and marketing officer, at the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) to know more about the region’s future and upcoming projects.

Phillip Jones

Saudi Vision 2030 aimed at doubling tourism by 2020. How important is the role AlUla plays in this roadmap and milestone?

AlUla plays an important role in the Saudi Vision of 2030 which is evidenced by its visitor goals, with a goal of over 250k visitors by 2022, and 2m visitors by 2032. As one of the first of the giga-projects to welcome tourists, albeit domestic visitors initially, all eyes will be on AlUla as it re-opens its key heritage sites to stimulate tourism in a COVID safe way. AlUla has also recently collaborated with the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA), for the completion of the second phase of AlUla’s airport development project, a key component of its strategy to position the city as a major tourism destination and logistics hub.

What characterizes AlUla and sets it apart?

AlUla is a unique open living museum, home to over 200,000 years of human history including Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra. AlUla is a time-capsule that is being opened to offer a new understanding of early humans and will reposition the global understanding of the significance of early Arabian civilisations. It is a place of exceptional natural beauty with unique geology and history and incredible landscapes, a must-visit destination for discerning travellers seeking meaningful, authentic travel experiences.On the incense trading route, AlUla has been a place of creative inspiration and cultural exchange for millennia being with its lush green oasis providing shelter and a home to civilisations for 7000 years. With a focus firmly on conservation and light-touch tourism experiences, AlUla’s sensitive development will set the benchmark for sustainable tourism globally. AlUla will once again provide a sanctuary and meeting point for travelers who understand that a better future depends on our mutual understanding of one another. AlUla is also home to Maraya, the architectural wonder. Wrapped in almost 10,000 square metres of mirrors reflecting its desert surrounds, this multi-purpose concert and entertainment venue is a modern man-made feat of achievement. 

Can you brief us about the upcoming projects in AlUla and the number of tourist destinations and attractions?

AlUla, the open-air museum of unprecedented historical and cultural significance in North West Saudi Arabia will be reopening its heritage sites on 30 October in a significant step to realize its tourism ambitions. The RCU has confirmed that the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra; the ancient kingdom of Dadan; and the whispering canyons of Jabal Ikmah will be the first sites to re-open to the public, having been largely closed off to visitors for two plus years. Visitors to AlUla will enjoy significant airport enhancements, new comfortable transport options around town and the heritage sites, and information provision at two new visitor centres. AlUla’s new Quality Assurance Program also ensures visitors will receive a warm and professional AlUla welcome. Significant COVID safety measures have been put in place that adhere to the Ministry of Health protocols, which align with the ‘safe travels’ guidelines published by the World Travel and Tourism Council. Measures include mandatory pre-booking of tickets, temperature checks at the airport, distancing and limitations of visitors at heritage and other sites, increased sanitation measures and mandatory mask-wearing. AlUla also recently completed the second phase of airport expansion, increasing annual capacity by 300 percent as several routes re-open. AlUla has four significant Heritage sites and the 1st UNESCO heritage site in Saudi Arabia:

  1. Hegra (Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site)
  2. Dadan
  3. Jabal Ikmah
  4. Old town of AlUla – will be opening to tourism for the very first time in December 2020.

    Lion Tomb Closeup

Dadan. Tombeaux aux LionsActivities and immersive experiences at the heritage sites, as well as adventure experiences such as a zipline, dune buggies and trails will be phased in over future months with the full suite of experiences planned for the winter season to be expected by first quarter 2021. Hotel brands Aman, Habitas and Accor’s Banyan Tree will be building high end luxury accommodation which complements AlUla’s landscape over the two to three years. Pritzker-prize winning architect, Jean Nouvel, is also designing a hotel and residence in AlUla which blend seamlessly into the rocky outcrops. Habitas Resort is set to open in December 2020 which will blend seamlessly with AlUla’s heritage and landscape, bringing guests closer to the culture, heritage and environment around them. AlUla is known for its innovative arts and culture events having held two successful years of Winter at Tantora. An exciting calendar of events will soon be released for the winter season which will appeal to a wide range of visitors. 

Are you on time in the delivery despite COVID-19?

Much like the rest of the world AlUla got affected by the global pandemic COVID-19. But despite this, AlUla is on time in the delivery of our destination to travelers, and in response to concerns about the impact of COVID-19 on travel, AlUla has implemented safety protocols. By following these measures, we strive to make this amazing destination as safe as possible for everyone.

Who are the tourists you are aiming at attracting?

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Visitor segmentation work confirms that AlUla will appeal to travellers seeking boutique, luxury experiences, with a secondary market of adventure seeking millennials. These will be key considerations for our communications. In the short-term, where the international borders remain closed, RCU will be focused on the domestic and the GCC markets where appropriate. The pandemic has allowed manny KSA travelers to take the time to appreciate their own country, and AlUla’s sites of global significance and immense beauty of landscapes, plus the new hotels, experiences and adventure product that is being developed for 2021, will definitely appeal to Saudi’s looking for a staycation. When visas are reinstated, RCU will refocus its efforts on attracting visitors from our top tier international markets including Europe and UK, USA, China, India, Russia and Australia. 

Jabal Ikmah

Can we position AlUla as a luxury destination or does it cater to diverse tourism flavors?

AlUla will be positioned as a boutique luxury destination for discerning cultural travelers. There is a variety of accommodation on offer, from luxury resorts and high-end villas with every possible amenity to well-appointed Airstream RVs surrounded by natural wonders for more outdoor adventure travelers. Hotel brands Aman, Habitas and Accor’s Banyan Tree will be building high end luxury accommodation which complements AlUla’s landscape over the two to three years. Habitas Resort is set to open in early 2021, the resort will blend seamlessly with AlUla’s heritage and landscape, bringing guests closer to the culture, heritage and environment around them.

Does AlUla compete internally with other destinations? (Jazan, Taif, etc.)

With the Kingdom’s many undiscovered unique destinations, it would be more appropriate to say that AlUla complements the other destinations internally. AlUla is well-positioned to be on an itinerary with the other giga projects such as Neom, Amaala and the Red Sea for visitors who want a truly immersive deep dive into the cultural, natural and man-made assets of a completely new tourism destination. Heritage is AlUla’s Hegra has 111 of the best preserved tombs from the Nabataean Kingdom, 94 of them with elaborate carved facades. The ancient city of Dadan is an open museum to the fascinating Dadanite and Lihaynite civilisations. Jabal Ikmah offers an open air library with more than 500 rocks with inscriptions in 10 different languages. AlUla Old Town is a  labyrinth of 900 mudbrick houses which was inhabited from the 12th century to the 1980. As well as this, AlUla’s stunning lush oasis, and rock formations such as Elephant Rock, Face Rock, Dancing Rocks, AlGharameel provide some of the most dramatic and picturesque desert landscapes to rival any around the world. In addition to this, what defines AlUla is the intangible nature with local people welcoming visitors and unparalleled adventures and arts and cultural events. No other destination in KSA offers the same mix of heritage and landscapes, activities and events, and this is what makes AlUla so unique a destination in the world. 

Hegra

How important is marketing at this stage? and how are you positioning the province?

The priority for RCU at the moment is to continue to build our experiences in a way that focuses on conversation and light-touch tourism that has the community at its heart. It is important that we build the destination brand in the right way to set the foundations for the future. There is already good brand equity for AlUla for KSA and GCC markets following two successful Winter at Tantora events in recent years, in terms of our key global markets the priority is to position the destination in line with our strategic objectives as a luxury, boutique culture and heritage destination for curious and discerning travelers. From an international perspective, we are looking to build awareness of AlUla and so it’s important that we build awareness through our travel trade and marcomms programs around the world so that when people are ready to travel again, AlULa is top of mind. Following that it will be important to communicate what experiences and bookable products are available so visitors can plan and book a two to three day itinerary.

Where do you see AlUla in the next phase?

There is no doubt that AlUla will become a must-visit destination for high-end luxury cultural travellers in the next five years especially as key hotel brands complete their work to bring a new level of accommodation to the destination. In the meantime, we see the domestic market as a key priority and will provide quality experiences and events to enhance their appreciation for AlUla’s natural assets. 

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