While things may have been quiet at Al Ula in 2020, the region is emerging as a premier tourism destination in Saudi Arabia. As a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the city began 2021 by making history. In early January, at the behest of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, leaders of the Gulf states met to sign a deal that effectively ended the regional embargo on Qatar. While indeed a momentous occasion, Saudi authorities have been working hard in recent years to make Al Ula a destination in its own right. 2018 saw the launch of the annual Winter at Tantora Festival, and while the pandemic considerably slowed down the festival's momentum in its most recent season, all the pieces are in place to ensure that once local and international travel resumes, the festival will be among the most popular.
The very first Winter at Tantora Festival was kicked off in late December 2018 and ran for seven weeks. The festival was the first of its kind for the country, bringing together a number of musicians, artists, and cultural activities at the heart of the Kingdom's archeological center. The festival was in part aimed at introducing to the world the once little-known ancient wonders of the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The festival's schedule boasted an impressive roster of musical performances, including Mohamed Abdo, Lang Lang, Yanni, Omar Khairat, and Andrea Bocelli. Guests were also treated to a hologram performance of legendary Egyptian singer Um Kulthum.
Festival goers were also offered the chance to experience light shows and a hot air balloon festival, as well as the Fursan festival, where the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Endurance Cup took place, bringing together more than 80 equestrians in the second-largest horse race in the Middle East. Attendees were also offered a wide array of food choices, from casual local dishes served from food carts to world-class dining experiences at pop-up restaurants. Prior to the event, authorities announced the introduction of the Sharek International Events Visa, which allowed foreign visitors entry for certain sporting events, cultural festivals and concerts. The first edition of the festival drew a large and diverse crowd; in addition to Saudis, festival goers came from as far as Australia and the US.
The second Winter at Tantora Festival took lasted even longer, from mid-December 2019 all the way to March of 2020. Again, Andrea Bocelli made an appearance, but was accompanied this time by names such as Enrique Iglesias, Craig David, and Lionel Richie. The 2019 edition also hosted the Kingdom's very-first desert polo tournament, which was aimed at showcasing the country's sporting talent not only to visitors, but to its youth as well, as a means of encouraging greater participation in sports. The festival's second round drew an even wider crowd, likely due to the government's relaxing of visa restrictions just a few months prior for citizens of more than 50 countries.
The Winter at Tantora Festival is part of a larger effort by Saudi Authorities to develop Al Ula as a world-class tourism destination. In July of 2017, the Royal Commission for Al Ula was created, with the task of developing and promoting Al Ula for such purposes. The commission oversaw the construction of the Maraya Concert Hall, completed in time for the 2019 edition. Designed to highlight and, literally, reflect the natural beauty of the landscape in Al Ula, the striking building is covered entirely in mirrors and is in fact the largest mirrored building in the world. In addition to performances, the building will host events, business gatherings, and exhibitions. Among the commission's other efforts at developing tourism in Al Ula, the city hosted its first date festival. The three-week event brought together date farmers, buyers, and visitors as well as more than 200 tons of dates from the region.
Al Ula lies in the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula, about 300km north of Medina and not far from the Red Sea. Within the region sits the Kingdom's first UNESCO World Heritage Site: Hegra. The area is renowned for its large rock cut monumental tombs with elaborate facades. The tombs date back to as far as the fourth century BC and were built by the Nabateans, who also constructed Petra in Jordan. The region was also once the capital of the Lihyanite Kingdom, which gained impressive power as it controlled the spice trade as it passed from Yemen on to Europe. During Islamic times, the area hosted an ancient, vibrant city. Now known as the Old Town, the area contains ancient buildings, mosques, and markets as old as 800 years. From a distance, the Old Town looks like one continuous building, with only narrow and winding alleys separating the nearly 900 residential units.