February 10, 2022 is the first Arabian Leopard Day and it is one of many initiatives to save this critically endangered species from extinction. At the heart of the efforts is the work of the Royal Commission for AlUla – AlUla is the northwestern region of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that is making waves as a new international eco and archaeological tourist destination.
There are only about 200 Arabian leopards remaining in the wild. They are the rarest and smallest of the world’s eight leopard species and are thought to be found only in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen.
Efforts by the Royal Commission for AlUla to protect critically endangered species include the creation of the Arabian Leopard Fundpartnerships with organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the creation and expansion of nature reserves, the training of park rangers for AlUla residents and the creation of a center for farming in the Sharaan Nature Reserve. The goal is to eventually reintroduce Arabian leopards by reintroducing cats to the AlUla Mountains.
You can learn more about Arabian leopards and their habitat by visiting AlUla. If you’re intrigued by the fourth century BCE ruins in Petra, Jordan, you’ll want to add the ruins to AlUla to your must-see list.
The ancient ruins of AlUla
Like Petra, AlUla was once a thriving Nabataean civilization and both sites are recognized by UNESCO. AlUla has been home to settlements for 7,000 years and the Nabataean, Dadanite and Lihyanite peoples all built cities here. AlUla was an important trading hub along the Silk Road, the Frankincense Road, and the route to Mecca. Under various names, it is mentioned in the Bible, the Torah and the Koran.
The landscape is characterized by craggy sandstone mountains, dramatic rock formations (including one that resembles a giant elephant), orange-red sand dunes, oases with date palms, and expanses of wildflowers.
Hegra is the site of elaborate Nabataean archaeological ruins and was the first UNESCO World Heritage Site in Saudi Arabia. In an oasis valley among dramatic rock formations, Hegra has more than 100 monumental tombs with intricate facades carved with designs and figures of animals and humans.
A glimpse of the area’s historic peoples and their societies can be seen through water management systems and still-working wells, art and tools, and even ancient graffiti in languages like the Aramaic and Latin. For example, Jamal Ikmah is a valley with over 500 rocks with inscriptions in a dozen languages as well as ancient designs of chariots, musical instruments and animals like camels and ibexes. This is called an “open-air library”.
An Abundance of AlUla Activities
International tourism to the destination is carefully managed, taking into account the fragility of the desert environment and involving local residents in its development. AlUla offers an intriguing mix of ancient, traditional and natural sites combined with modern restaurants and hotels – even a concert hall in the largest mirrored building in the world.
There are many ways to view the pictographs of AlUla, the photogenic tombs and dunes, and rock formations of the area, both from ground level and from the air. Choose from guided walks and hikes, biking in the sand dunes, ziplining in the mountains, horseback riding, hot air ballooning, and excursions in vintage airplanes.
To understand the region in more depth, you can take a tour of the old town of AlUla (including visiting women-owned shops) with one of the first Rawi or Arab women storytellers in the Kingdom. Or why not spend an evening stargazing in the desert at a Bedouin camp and experience the constellations from an Arabian perspective. AlUla also hosts a variety of events and parties between poetry, traditional and modern art, a symphonic concert under the stars and modern concerts (Seal plays on February 17, 2022, for example).
At Sharaan Nature Reserve, you can see wild animals like Idmi gazelles, Nubian ibexes, red-necked ostriches, Arabian wolves, big-eared red foxes, long-legged Cape hares and rock hyraxes. And, perhaps soon, the Arabian leopard.
Where to sleep and dine in AlUla
There are more and more hotels to choose from in AlUla, and more are on the way. Open November 2021 is Habitas AlUlaa sustainably built luxury resort in a spectacular sandstone canyon location. Banyan Tree AlUla plans luxury resort with pool villas for end of 2022. Five stars A man is set to open three AlUla hotels in 2023, including a tented camp and property under its new, more affordable Janu brand.
AlUla’s best dining options include social maraya by star chef Jason Atherton – the rooftop restaurant sits atop the Maraya Concert Hall and the world’s largest mirrored building. Traditional Saudi dishes with a modern twist can be found at Suhail Old Townbut you can also find pizzas, burgers, French pastries and more.
Visas and logistics to visit AlUla and Saudi Arabia
Tourist visas for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are available for citizens of dozens of countries, with details on the Discover AlUla and Visit Arabia websites. Visas on arrival are suspended during the Covid pandemic and newly issued tourist visas include Covid insurance. Fully vaccinated travelers do not need to quarantine if they have a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of departure.
As this region has only recently opened to international tourism, independent travel is possible, but by booking through a AlUla Travel Partner is beneficial. Although it is a year-round destination, the climate in Saudi Arabia is cooler between October and March. Flights to AlUla are available from Dubai, Riyadh, Kuwait and other regional hubs.