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SA24_TO_ALULA

SAUDI ARABIA - Tourism

Amr AlMadani

CEO, The Royal Commission for AlUla

Bio

Amr AlMadani, the CEO of the Royal Commission for AlUla, is an accomplished and dynamic executive with a proven track record of creating, building and operating start-up organizations, managing teams in dynamic business environments, and growing high performing and successful organizations to scale. He cofounded TalentS, a KSA based creative learning startup in the fields of science, technology, engineering and innovation. His experience spans across many sectors and markets, including the development of museums and science centers, entertainment and tourism. Prior to his assignment with the Royal Commission for AlUla, he was the founding CEO of the General Entertainment Authority in Saudi Arabia. He completed the Advanced Management Development Program through the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. He is a graduate of the Harvard Business School Program for Leadership Development and is an Eisenhower Fellow.

"SME enablement is creating powerful and lasting growth powered by a community of AlUla entrepreneurs."

Amr AlMadani, CEO of The Royal Commission for AlUla, talks to TBY about being dedicated to the sustainable development of the entire region of AlUla, all in line with Saudi Vision 2030.

How is the Royal Commission for AlUla positioned to develop the entire region of AlUla?

RCU was established in 2017 and now, six years into our vision, our strategies and goals have expanded beyond initial ambition and planning into impactful action and consistent delivery of our principles and aims within the framework of comprehensive regeneration. Our plans can be seen on the ground across AlUla through the creation of a sustainable, expanding, destination for global tourism and unique heritage, that attracts diverse investment and creates new economic opportunities for the community.

Our efforts have delivered outcomes that are in line with Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 plan and its goals of empowering economic diversification, the preservation of the natural world, spurring job creation and enabling development. Our work in AlUla follows clear and comprehensive UNESCO conservation guidelines for World Heritage sites and does not negatively affect the historic character of Hegra, or any of the world-famous tourist destinations and cultural landmarks that can be found across the county.

Our approach is based on a combination of sustainability, responsibility, community orientation, education, inclusive opportunities, and partnerships that are aligned with the AlUla Sustainability Charter and its 12 guiding pillars. These, as well as Vision 2030, have helped to shape more than $2 billion of investment in essential infrastructure and global cultural projects in AlUla, enabling the creation of 2,728 jobs, a figure that will rise to 38,000 by 2035 when AlUla will contribute SAR 120 billion to the Kingdom’s GDP.

RCU’s focus on the AlUla community extends beyond boosting employment and opportunity today. With a view towards increasing inclusion in AlUla’s development for residents, RCU continues to upskill and empower local people through opportunities for higher education offered as part of the successful AlUla Scholarship Programme. Up to now, 729 overseas scholarships have been provided to youngsters paving the way towards long-term careers in AlUla, allowing local families to live, work, and thrive here. This year, the third edition of RCU’s Hammayah training program will upskill 1,500 people from AlUla as well as Khaybar and Tayma – destinations within the valley of the oasis that are included in our overarching masterplan for the county as a whole.

While new opportunities are delivering sustained growth in a variety of sectors from ranging education to tourism and beyond, RCU maintains its commitment to established local industries like agriculture. These areas of economic activity, such as farming, retain great cultural importance to the community, employing local people and serving as a powerful connection to their traditions and heritage. We have, so far, trained more than 100 farmers at farms across the county – the bedrock of AlUla’s rich agricultural economy – in sustainable farming practices that encourage them to explore new economic avenues, increase crop yields and sell to a growing market of residents and tourists through events, like the annual dates and citrus Festivals.

These festivals, along with the Fresh Food Market and farmers’ markets in AlUla, are developing the agricultural sector as a driver of sustainable economic activity, empowering farmers and productive families with regular income, access to a growing market of consumers from across AlUla and further afield, while promoting high-quality, locally grown produce. A key pillar of our comprehensive regeneration goals, the long-term development of agriculture across AlUla County is benefiting our entire community.

As per Vision 2030, the concept of Sustainability must be applied to every single (giga) project that will be developed within the kingdom. How does your activity align with the suitability targets promoted by Vision 2030?

AlUla is one of the largest and most thorough economic, social, cultural, and environmental development programs in the world – the comprehensive regeneration of a cultural landscape in north-west Saudi Arabia spanning 22,561 square kilometers.

As part of AlUla’s development, RCU is committed to the sustainability goals of Vision 2030 and the Saudi Green Initiative (SGI). As such, our plans and actions are aligned with the central pillars of SGI to reduce emissions, to green the Kingdom’s natural environment, and protect the land for the benefit of future generations – goals that also form the basis of our AlUla Sustainability Charter.

Based around 12 fundamental principles, the AlUla Sustainability Charter defines our environmental and development aims. The charter’s focus is built on four critical areas of regeneration and development with clear goals attached to each:

  • Water: RCU is preserving water by implementing a demand management program that encourages the highest levels of efficiency for all water uses in the county.
  • Biodiversity: RCU is committed to creating nature reserves to protect and foster biodiversity, restore, and enhance habitats and ecosystems and reintroduce indigenous species and native plants.
  • Carbon footprint: RCU aims to achieve net zero carbon in AlUla by 2035 (excluding air travel and imported food) by encouraging and promoting green mobility options for residents and visitors, constructing carbon neutral buildings, establishing renewable energy sources, and encouraging a sustainable food supply chain through local agriculture while supporting the expansion of a sustainable tourism sector.
  • Waste & circular economy: All developments are required by RCU to take steps to reduce waste generation and to facilitate recycling and composting throughout their project and beyond.

Acting as our Sustainability Strategic Roadmap, the charter has helped to guide approximately 237 sustainability initiatives across AlUla County. Created with their own comprehensive targets, schedules, and milestones, these are either now fully complete and in operation, a work in progress, or yet to be initiated by RCU.

Our sustainability work and environmental ambitions are not restricted to AlUla County. Last year, members of the RCU family joined world leaders in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, for COP27 where we were able to explain the goals of the Saudi Green Initiative Forum 2022 and to further establish KSA, and AlUla, as important players in regional and global conservation, sustainability, and development efforts.

On the ground in AlUla, our environmental targets, aligned with Vision 2030 and SGI, are taking affect with the activation of vast nature reserves as a result of close collaborations with expert partners such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). These are priority sites for the ongoing reintroduction of native species, leading to the eventual release of new populations of Arabian Leopards – which is currently critically endangered – back into the wild. Rich in flora and fauna, these priority sites include Harrat Uwayrid, Harrat AlZabin, and an area in the Prince Mohammed Bin Salman Royal Reserve.

Our plans for the protection and conservation of native animals is gathering pace with the birth of several healthy Arabian Leopard cubs at our Captive Breeding Programme. A momentous occasion, these births bring the goals of our National Action Plan for the Conservation of Arabian Leopards to reintroduce the species by 2030, a step closer to fruition.

With sustainability guiding our efforts, our plan of comprehensively regenerating AlUla is taking shape by preserving, promoting, and protecting the land and supporting the communities who call it home.

How do you preserve and protect the pristine environment of AlUla, minimizing the impact of all the ongoing developments in the region?

Our business model of comprehensive regeneration hinges on the success of both our natural and man-made environment – putting the two in conflict is where we all lose.

The traditional model of viewing environmental protection, ecosystem restoration, and human development as conflicting with one another is being turned on its head and completely re-evaluated by the success of our comprehensive regeneration strategy and its actions. This nature-positive, economically empowering, and culturally supportive approach to development in AlUla places the success of our community and the natural world on an equal footing.

Any impact on natural habitats is greatly reduced through our commitment to environmental, economic and community sustainability delivered through comprehensive regeneration. As a guiding principle it provides a clear framework for the naturalization, conservation, and enablement of ecosystems.

Comprehensive regeneration establishes a foundation from which we can enhance AlUla’s unique value proposition through the right actions, clear conservation plans, and diverse economic drivers that aid us in achieving a sustainable and inclusive vision of what development looks like and can achieve across the county.

Aligned with the AlUla Sustainability Charter, our development practices are delivered in a sustainable manner, which allows us to avoid negative consequences. Proactive planning, design, and construction rules for all engineering and building projects are strictly followed. All our developers are required to adhere to clear sustainability principles, with most of AlUla’s commercial development taking place in the urban area, far from core heritage and nature areas to minimize any impact on the environment.

Our concept of comprehensive regeneration and our sustainability practices support the ultimate goal of establishing an effective, resilient, and robust circular economy in AlUla. This will help us to expand what sustainability means to development the ground, emphasizing the benefits and long-term use of safe and healthy materials from the onset of design, to planning, through to the completion of a project.

In AlUla, we are showing how it is possible to reconcile the needs of economic development while supporting biodiversity. Our work is about creating harmony between people and place for long-term, sustainable, success.

RCU’s works reflects Vision 2030’s ambitious commitment to cultivate tourism and leisure in Saudi Arabia. How are you fostering strategic segments such as archaeology, tourism, culture, education, and the arts, creating a harmonious ecosystem that can compete with the leading global touristic hubs?

RCU is establishing AlUla as a leading global destination for culture, arts, heritage, and history, powered by a dynamic, global, and sustainable tourism sector.

In moving forward with our tourism goals, the many strands of our work are increasingly serving to support one another. We can now say that, following rigorous planning to highlight land use assessments and studies to ensure the best course of action in development as outlined in our comprehensive regeneration goals, the basic components of an integrated tourist economy are now active, established, and working in AlUla. These range from physical and human infrastructure, including thousands of upskilled residents and new jobs, to a range of assets such as an expanded airport and new luxury hotels.

Our progress has spanned several fields in the past year. In the arts, expansion of the festival season signaled AlUla’s arrival as a premier destination for innovative expression and creativity; dynamic activations such as the site responsive international exhibit Desert X continues to attract new audiences and exciting talents while Wadi Al Fann, or ‘valley of the arts’ in English, will dramatically upscale AlUla’s cultural profile through a collection of ground-breaking installations and sculptures from iconic global artists when it opens in 2024.

The ongoing AlUla Moments festival features four segments: Winter at Tantora, with high-end cultural events; AlUla Arts, with exhibitions by leading artists; AlUla Skies, when guests could hop aboard a hot-air balloon or vintage plane; and AlUla Wellness with body and soul experiences including yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. Concerts during the past year included shows by Alicia Keys and Mariah Carey.

In education, the Al Faris International School, a multi-year partnership between RCU and Al Faris International, will see the next generation of citizens and residents flourish in an academically inspiring International Baccalaureate curriculum while the Hammaya Programme and the AlUla Scholarship Programme continue to train and upskill members of the community with essential knowledge and experience to contribute to the growth of key industries including tourism.

In archaeology, AlUla’s heritage garnered global attention with the unveiling of an ancient Lihyanite statue at the Louvre Museum in Paris, where for the next five years it can be viewed by the Louvre’s millions of visitors a year. The ambitious Kingdoms Institute continues to be developed as an active hub for archaeology, research and conservation establishing AlUla as a global destination for knowledge sharing and heritage preservation by teams of Saudi and international experts. AlUla County plays hosts to ongoing archaeological digs and expeditions that reveal the incredible history of northwest Arabia and its connection to the region and beyond.

When it comes to natural heritage and ecotourism, a key element of AlUla’s diverse touristic appeal, we have accelerated our program to reintroduce native species including the ibex, oryx, and gazelles and of course are making headway with our Arabian Leopard program in which our efforts to reintroduce the Arabian Leopard to the wild have seen the birth of several new cubs in our breeding center in Taif. As our natural environment is replenished and grows, our eco-tourism potential will also develop and expand in tandem.

Milestones in the hospitality sector include the opening of the Banyan Tree AlUla resort in the rapidly evolving Ashar Valley location, marking the brand’s entry into Saudi Arabia, while we have also opened a gleaming new hangar for private jets at AlUla International Airport, an emerging transport hub at which we have quadrupled capacity.

In AlUla, all of the elements of an economic, sustainable, and cultural ecosystem are working together as part of its comprehensive regeneration into a leading global destination. In sum, it’s working – we welcomed 146,000 visitors in 2021, 62% over target. By 2030, we will reach 1.2 million visitors, rising to 2 million by 2035.

The AlUla Design Studio was created to open development opportunities for the community as part of the urban regeneration of AlUla. As far as Real Estate and Construction are concerned, what opportunities are presented for investors willing to develop new projects in AlUla?

Creating sustainable communities is a central pillar of AlUla’s comprehensive regeneration, which is being actioned and achieved through our Urban Development Plan and its focus on increasing the livability and investability of the entire county to residents and developers.

Sustainably built homes support AlUla’s growth into a place where people live, work, and thrive, attracting families and businesses to the area and driving the ongoing development of essential infrastructure and services.

Through RCU’s land release initiatives, we are encouraging new communities to take root with urban projects launched in partnership with construction specialists and teams at the AlUla Design Studio.

With land release programs that continue to be launched around AlUla, we are inviting careful development from landowners and investors alike as RCU expands AlUla’s urban footprint in a considered and sustainable manner, in harmony with the rich nature that defines this part of the Kingdom.

RCU and its network of partners and suppliers—including Aecom, Systra, National Grid Co and the French consortium SEA (Setec, Egis, Assystem)—have made considerable progress in the past year as we develop AlUla’s livability and investability. To date, USD 2 billion in government-backed seed funding has been invested in critical projects such as airport expansion, demonstrating the opportunities that exist for investors.

How do you promote AlUla among the international community of investors? Can you share with us some successful case studies that reflect the position of AlUla as an ideal catalyst for FDI?

AlUla is a global destination and an exciting gateway to Arabia for companies, investors, and entrepreneurs eager to explore new opportunities as AlUla County develops into a fully serviced hub for businesses, services, and modern urban living.

RCU’s actions towards comprehensive regeneration in AlUla are supporting and promoting investment in a variety of sectors. In October, RCU marked a major milestone for continued and long-term investment in the hospitality sector: the completion of phase one of the luxury Ashar Valley hub with the opening of the Banyan Tree AlUla resort. The French hospitality group’s new resort supports AlUla’s credentials as an investment destination and reinforces the Kingdom’s expanding tourism ecosystem.

Other partner investments in recent years in AlUla’s hospitality sector include the Habitas Resort and Caravans by Habitas that opened in the Ashar Valley.

Investment in AlUla is attracting attention on the global stage. At last year’s Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, RCU signed a new, 10-year strategic partnership with Aecom to deliver far-reaching infrastructure and investment goals that will provide support for long-term economic development. The global infrastructure consulting firm will work with RCU to deliver on our key plans over the next decade, driving new, sustainable, and sustained investment in an established, but also growing, destination.

As far KSA’s tourism and hospitality segments are concerned, AlUla is slowly imposing itself as one of the most iconic destinations within the Kingdom. Can you elaborate on the promotion strategy and activity that will be implemented to cement the brand of AlUla in the international arena?

AlUla is not only one of the most iconic destinations within the Kingdom, but it is also imposing itself as a must-visit destination internationally.

As the KSA’s tourism sector has evolved and matured, so too has AlUla’s offering—each has risen in line with the agenda and framework set out in Vision 2030 to establish tourism as a key driver of economic activity and contributor to GDP.

To date our strategy has been about building meaningful and impactful travel trade and media relationships and on data-driven insights to ensure we are targeted in our marketing. This year, we are working towards an international campaign that will further cement the global awareness that has been achieved. Our focus will continue to be on bringing to life the history, culture, and traditions of AlUla; expanding our work with key partners to tell the stories of the notable achievements in areas such as the arts, archaeology, conservation, and wildlife.

In December last year, AlUla’s Old Town and AlJadidah were named as one of the Best Tourism Villages 2022 by United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), alongside 31 other villages worldwide in recognition of RCU’s comprehensive conservation and preservation efforts. UNWTO and the Ministry of Tourism of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are now working closely to the hold the first edition of the Best Tourism Villages Award Ceremony and a meeting of the global BTV Network in AlUla.

Domestically our awareness has grown importantly over the last year, reaching 72% brand recognition among affluent travelers. Globally across Tier I and Tier II markets in Europe, Asia-Pacific, and the US our awareness has reached 29%, which is expected to keep rising as we launch further brand campaigns. RCU anticipates significant growth in visitors in the next few years, especially from beyond the GCC. We are forecasting approximately 250,000 visitors in 2023, 1.2million in 2030, and 2 million in 2035.

As both digitalization and the Metaverse accelerate, how is RCU exploring new methods to engage with visitors creating innovative and inspiring solutions and offers?

RCU is now present in the Metaverse, with the recent launch of a to-scale immersive 3D model of Hegra’s monumental landmark the Tomb of Lihyan, Son of Kuza in Decentraland. This marked our first step into the Metaverse, with Hegra also being the first UNESCO World Heritage site to be present in this new virtual world.

The Metaverse iteration of Hegra not only provides an immersive and realistic digital experience to visitors who can log on and visit from anywhere in the world, it also allows RCU to engage in an innovative and two-way dialogue with a younger, digital-enabled audience. Examples include virtual experiences linked to the Saudi Tour road race, including live broadcasts and interactive games, and permanent hot air balloon flights that allow visitors to soar over Hegra in a perfectly recreated digital sky.

The generation who will visit Hegra in the Metaverse today will be the people who will board flights to AlUla tomorrow, swapping the virtual experience for the physical. Both experiences are completely complementary to the other, with attributes and qualities that elevate each visit, revealing new wonders within Hegra’s ancient heritage.

The latest wave of digital innovation is allowing RCU to circumnavigate physical boundaries while effectively leveraging new platforms and opportunities to tap into an exciting new digital economy.

RCU has also harnessed the very latest forensic technology to complete the first digital and physical reconstruction of a Nabataean woman, whose remains were discovered in Hegra by a team of archaeologists conducting fieldwork. Named “Hinat” by the reconstruction team, the woman died in the first century BCE and lay for over 2,000 years within a Hegra tomb. We look forward to displaying “Hinat” in dignified surroundings in AlUla, so she can, in a sense, return home to meet her descendants.

These act as powerful examples of RCU’s pursuit and harnessing of innovation for human betterment, with ideas and technologies expanding our understanding of our history while allowing us to connect with our future and the new possibilities it will present.

SMEs are the backbone of the national economy, and their development is central to Vision 2030. Can you share your strategy to create and foster a sustainable, inclusive, and entrepreneurship-powered local economy?

SME enablement is creating powerful and lasting growth powered by a community of AlUla entrepreneurs, and RCU is investing across a number of areas, largely through training and encouraging entrepreneurship among the local community.

A key part of our current plans includes the development of a content policy to support SME growth—the goal is to stimulate the local SME sector by mandating that work is subcontracted to local SMEs or that AlUla residents are hired to complete contracted works.

Our efforts across training and incubator programs are continually providing training opportunities for SMEs to develop ideas into businesses, encouraging fresh graduates to become business owners, and create local job demand. Specifically, the Vibes AlUla SME Enablement Program is soon to begin with its third cohort of entrepreneurs. The second cohort, which graduated in October, has launched several businesses in AlUla. The entrepreneurs receive hands-on guidance from specialists from AstroLabs, a technology ecosystem builder.

Through two cohorts the Vibes AlUla SME Enablement Programme has graduated 29 SMEs, developing 80 products, and creating 69 jobs with 78% Saudi national hires.

The growth of SMEs and their enabling ecosystem in AlUla is in direct support of RCU’s aim to sharply reduce unemployment in AlUla to seven percent by 2035, and in time we also aim to raise the monthly per-capita income. Supporting new avenues for economic opportunity is critical to achieving these goals, but our efforts to establish economic sustainability in the SME community are now achieving sustained successes.

The rising SMEs of AlUla serve the Vision 2030 goal of economic diversification.

Can you share with us your main targets and ambitions set in your short-term agenda?

The last 12 months brought sustained economic, environmental, and cultural transformation across many sectors in AlUla as part of our sustained delivery of our comprehensive regeneration goals. For the year ahead, we will continue to support and upskill the community, to empower local SMEs to serve a wider market, and to boost job creation in a wide variety of fields and industries. RCU will continue to deliver results in our expansive efforts to protect the environment, and to regreen and rewild the landscape.

With the recently expanded airport, which boasts the new VIP hangar for private aircraft and a host of new international routes to established and new markets such as Paris, we’re looking forward to welcoming even greater numbers of tourists to experience AlUla.

As our hospitality sector grows and evolves in line with projects to protect and promote our natural heritage, AlUla’s standing as a global tourism destination will reach new levels of awareness.

We will maintain and expand our support of key community institutions and traditional sectors of economic activity in AlUla, such as farming, arts and crafts, while also creating new opportunities for the economic empowerment of families and residents to help them be engaged in AlUla’s comprehensive regeneration. In 2023, AlUla’s ongoing development into the world’s largest living museum will continue to take shape, further establishing it as a unique global destination where people from all over the world can come together to experience 200,000 years of shared history.

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