Saudi Arabia might not be on your clients’ must-do list but it’s a country with big tourism ambitions and a secret weapon which will blow the minds of culture seekers the world over - Al Ula.

Arabian arrival

It’s late in the evening and, as our small convoy of huge 4WDs glides effortlessly into the Shaden Resort, it feels like I am on a sci-fi film set.

Mountainous rock formations tower all around us and the complex is illuminated by floodlights. It is bitter cold in the desert but my group is offered the warmest of welcomes. I have arrived at Al Ula, an area that covers a region the size of Belgium and is Saudi Arabia's first UNESCO World Heritage Site. ‘Al Ula’ is also an ancient village of the same name.

With its otherworldly landscapes and ancient buildings, Al Ula merges history and nature in an intoxicating way. It is quite simply the star of the country’s emerging tourism industry - but more about that later.

At the Hegra site I feel as if I’m sleep walking around the ancient burial sites, such is the ethereal quality of these exquisitely carved archaeological wonders. They are covered in strange symbols, some portraying religious scenes or ancient debating forums, and others showing the hunting of animals like ibex, camels and horses. This is where important people were buried, in tombs carved out of the desert rocks and inscribed with the owners’ identities. Many remains, including bones and shrouds, have been recovered from these graves.

Al-Ula’s origins go back to the 6th century BC, when it was described as a fertile oasis village, situated along the ancient incense, spices and silk routes that linked Arabia, Egypt and India. It became the capital of the ancient North Arabian Lihyanites before they were subdued about 2,000 years ago by the Nabataeans. These people, whose better known capital Petra is a mere 400 miles north in Jordan, built Madain Saleh, or ‘Hegra’, which became Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. These days the ruins of the ancient town and the old Lihyanite settlement lie within the boundaries of the modern Al Ula.

Michelin-star dining

Wearing strong walking shoes, we are transported deep into the desert, where we team up with other thrill-seekers for an extreme dune buggy experience. Think ‘Mad Max’, with suspension on each wheel designed to keep us safe as we hurtle across the undulating dunes, clinging on for dear life and ever grateful for our helmets and seatbelts.

Curiously, at the furthest, most remote point, our experienced leader leads us on foot, like a willing lost tribe, along trails carved between the rocks, showing us dramatic Instagram-worthy views whilst delivering a memorable history lesson. We follow his instruction to sit down, and at his request engage in silent meditation.It is a weirdly emotional experience.

The surprises keep coming as our guide whisks us off to the first of the Michelin-star-standard pop-up restaurants that have been parachuted into the Al Ula area. At the famous Annabels we are presented with a memorable taster menu that is as much an experience as it is a meal. Other dining extravaganzas include the elegant La Cantine Restaurant and Saas, where all customers and staff enter via a maze of beautifully lit caves and rocks, in places no more than 60cm wide. To set this restaurant up, everything was transported through this narrow entrance, except for the oven which was strapped to the back of a very strong man who climbed through a temporary access area!

Ambitious plans

Al Ula is crucial to the success of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 - quite possibly the world’s most ambitious tourism project ever conceived. Announced in July 2017 by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, it’s a seismic undertaking that hopes to rocket Saudi into pole position among future global tourism players. The plan is to move the country away from its over-reliance on petrochemicals, which accounts for an unsustainable 87% of all budget revenue.

The greater part of the Vision 2030 development is earmarked for the north-west coast, in particular ‘The Red Sea Project’. Covering nearly 11,000 square miles of land, this unprecedented transformation will deliver a range of island getaways and coastal resorts, presenting the world’s upscale travellers with futuristic travel experiences, mountain and desert adventures and other luxury pursuits.

Cutting-edge technology will be applied to protect the coral reefs and diverse marine life. Sustainability is fundamental to the project, so perhaps unsurprisingly these developments are planned as 100% carbon neutral and with no single-use plastic. That is for the future, but there is plenty to see and do in Saudi right now.

Where it all began

Masmak Fort in Riyadh is a must-visit since it played a pivotal part in the country’s history. It was here, on January 14 1902, that Ibn Saud recaptured Riyadh from a rival clan – and subsequently became the first monarch and founder of Saudi Arabia - his heroism and courage becoming part of the new nation’s folklore.

About an hour northwest of Riyadh is the perfectly named Edge Of The World, surrounded by rocky desert, the beautiful motorway becomes an off-road track of challenging 4WD-only terrain. It takes another hour, but it’s well worth the bone shaking journey. From high up on the cliffs the view down into the depths below and as far as the eye can see gives you unparalleled and uninterrupted views of the kingdom that Ibn Saud created.

A short internal flight to Jeddah, on the Northwest Red Sea coast, provided me with another entirely different experience. For relaxation, a visit to a private beach club here is a great chance for relaxation, sunshine, and an invigorating swim where coral reef snorkelling is a delight.

Jeddah Old Town is also known as Al Balad, just adjacent to Eve’s burial place (as some Muslims believe). I joined with a guide who enthusiastically introduced our group to this recently added UNESCO World Heritage Site. The historical centre is a architectural masterpiece, although only now in the process of being restored to its former glory. The vibrant narrow alleyways are full of character, with a bewildering diversity of products, always served with friendly humour and passion.

Change for the better

As my visit to this remarkable country draws to a close, I am left with a feeling that my perceptions have been changed in a way that is rare for an experienced traveller.

Saudi’s society is changing fast, in particular the relaxation of strict Islamic rules and the empowerment of women. This is impossible to miss – and impossible to overstate. From arrival to departure, almost all of the professionals overseeing our Saudi experience are women – tourism guides, three expert off-road drivers, a scuba diving instructor, a free-diving expert and the head of the Al Ula project development.

Vision 2030 is a monumental undertaking that will no doubt open up Saudi Arabia to vast numbers of tourists from around the world. The UK is at the top of the list of countries open minded new travelling experiences and I hope that, like me, Brits will discover a palpable sense of optimism, progress and freedom, reflected in the friendly way people enthusiastically engage with each other and with visitors.