Tantora Festival showcases world cultures, Saudi heritage

Winter at Tantora is scheduled over 12 weekends, hosting a wide range of events from the Dakar Rally, a ballooning festival, an endurance horse race and a desert polo tournament.
Sunday 05/01/2020
A view of the facade of the mirrored-wall Maraya Theatre in Al-Ula, a UNESCO World Heritage site in  north-western Saudi Arabia.(AFP)
At the forefront of culture. A view of the facade of the mirrored-wall Maraya Theatre in Al-Ula, a UNESCO World Heritage site in north-western Saudi Arabia.(AFP)

DUBAI - Saudi Arabia’s entertainment industry has boomed in recent few months as the kingdom seeks to attract tourists from near and far.

Al-Ula, in north-western Saudi Arabia, is no exception having hosted the second Winter at Tantora Festival, which is to continue through March 7. The celebration showcases international music, art and culture connecting East and West.

Locals speak of Al-Ula as the hidden gem of Saudi Arabia.

“Al-Ula has never really been at the forefront of our culture,” said Fahda Bander Al Saud from Traveling Panther, an experience design company in Saudi Arabia. “Because of the mysticism and stories surrounding Mada’in Saleh, most people who would visit were primarily professional or amateur historians. There has never been much interest, nor has there been much advertisement for the area. It’s great to see that changing now.”

The festival came after Saudi Arabia introduced tourist visas for citizens from 49 countries, making the country more accessible. The UNESCO World Heritage site at Hegra in Al-Ula is among those featured in a global marketing campaign.

The festival is part of the Cultural Manifesto established by the Royal Commission for Al-Ula (RCU), last October in Paris as part of a long-term strategy to transform the region into a global living museum and place of culture, heritage and the arts.

“The festival is a great way to showcase a beautiful area that has been underrepresented both within and outside the country,” Al Saud said. “The region is incredibly rich in history and with that come quite a few myths and legends. Creating an event to bring people in and show Al-Ula and Mada’in Saleh in a different light is exactly the right direction to take.”

She said she hoped to see more of a focus on a local narrative towards the international community in which Saudis can present themselves and their land as it actually is.

“For most of our modern-day history, we’ve allowed the world to create a narrative for us, and it’s time to be more proactive,” she added.

“The other thing I’d like to see is an expansion of services throughout the country to showcase the incredibly varied and beautiful landscapes and heritage sites Saudi Arabia has to offer. From the towering snow-capped mountains to the lush green valleys and barren deserts, the coral reefs in the Red Sea and the mangroves in the Gulf. There is just so much beauty.”

Hidden gem. Hot air balloons in Al-Ula, a UNESCO World Heritage site in north-western Saudi Arabia.(AP)

Traveling Panther is working on projects aimed at showcasing such areas.

“We want to explore every inch of it ourselves,” she said. “Everything that’s happening now is not only opening the region up to the international community but locals are benefiting and beginning to actually see what their own country has to offer. That’s what we’re most excited about.”

Winter at Tantora is scheduled over 12 weekends, hosting a wide range of events from the Dakar Rally, an international ballooning festival, the world’s second-longest endurance horse race and the world’s first desert polo tournament as well as pop-up restaurants from globally renowned establishments.

The mirrored-wall Maraya Theatre with its 500-seat capacity and operatic sound quality will be home to some of the world’s leading performers, including Omar Khairat and Andrea Bocelli, during the festival.

“It has been amazing to witness the change in Saudi Arabia,” said Sara al-Ahmad, a 25-year-old from Jeddah. “What has been even more special is to see the response from tourists from around the world — so many people are now interested and keen to visit the kingdom.”

The festival is hosted by members of the Al-Ula community trained overseas in hospitality, culture, nature and the environment.

Storytellers from Al-Rowah have been trained by expert tour guides in France, the United States and the United Arab Emirates to share Al-Ula’s story with the world, while 24 men and women have concluded training at the FERRANDI Paris culinary institute.

The chefs will work alongside Michelin-starred experts to create world-class cuisine that will incorporate ingredients from the fertile Al-Ula valley and blend traditional recipes with modern cuisine.

“Festival visitors will be given a unique opportunity to visit and experience one of the world’s undiscovered places and its spectacular heritage sites before we reopen them to the world in October 2020,” said RCU CEO Amr AlMadani.

“They will get a tantalising glimpse of a place that has been a cultural crossroads for thousands of years and the chance to see it from the serenity of a hot air balloon, the adrenaline of soaring over the desert and mountains in an open-seater biplane or exploring hidden canyons in traditional vintage Land Rovers.”

The RCU completed major infrastructure work at Al-Ula airport, increasing its capacity to 400,000 visitors a year and upgrading local mountain resorts to enhance visitors’ experience.

Al-Ula is expected to become a worldwide destination for those seeking a unique experience in Saudi Arabia, integrating the natural and cultural heritage as one living environment. “By safeguarding our precious landscapes and cultural heritage, this open-air museum will be the kingdom’s gift to the world, creating remarkable and lasting memories,” AlMadani said.

During the opening weekend, the “Authentic Al-Ula” event included locally inspired dining and entertainment to mark the start of the winter planting season. It was the first of 12 themed weekends.

Lighting up the skies. A scene during the Al-Ula Balloon Festival.(AP)