A massive survey in a remote part of the desert kingdom reveals archaeological wonders, including huge, mysterious structures that are baffling
Until now, almost all international visitors to Saudi Arabia have been either business travelers or religious pilgrims, but the government says it isopening up the country to mainstream tourism as part of economic reforms designed to end its dependency on oil exports, outlined in its Vision 2030plan.
As well as Al-Ula, the Kingdom is developing a string of resorts along the Red Sea coast, and a Six Flags-branded theme park in Riyadh. However, a tourist visa that had been expected to launch in April has not yet been released -- a representative of the Saudi government told CNN that regulations are still being reviewed by the Royal Court.
The potential jewel in Saudi Arabia's heritage tourism crown is Mada'in Salih. A collection of 111 spectacular tombs carved into rocky outcrops, and one of four UNESCO world heritage sites in the country, Mada'in Salih was built by the Nabataeans, the same civilization that created the much better-known settlement at Petra in Jordan.
Along with other key sights in Al-Ula, Mada'in Salih is currently closed to the public. It will re-open when the RCU has decided how best to showcase its heritage to large numbers of visitors, while ensuring that it is carefully preserved.
Last September, the commission hired Rebecca Foote, a London-based American archaeologist, to establish an archaeology and cultural heritage department. Her first project is the survey: its aim is to identify and document all remains of past human activity, and create an inventory that will help to determine which sites merit further study, conserving and being developed for tourism.
"It's an extraordinary opportunity," says Foote. "You rarely get the chance to carry out a best-practice, state-of-the-art integrated survey on such a large scale and in a landscape that's largely undisturbed."