Imagine a cultural treasure with the significance of Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat set in a natural landscape as stunning as the Grand Canyon. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, but has been barely excavated and has had virtually no tourists. It exists in the desert of Saudi Arabia. Last week, I, along with Indagare COO Eliza Harris, visited Mada‘in Saleh, which has been called more compelling than Petra, and its 18 square miles include 140 monumental rock-hewn tombs dating back to 100 BC. The site was recently closed to all visitors as a royal commission develops a master plan to preserve and protect the area and the greater region of Al-`Ula.
But tourist visas to Saudi Arabia may soon be issued as part of Vision 2030, the ambitious blueprint of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. The country, which has been off-limits to travelers for decades, plans to draw tourists to pristine private islands in the Red Sea with spectacular coral reefs and a “smart city” powered by robots, which will compete with Dubai. But the star attraction will be Al-`Ula, which combines geological wonders and cultural masterpieces. Excavations in the area, which began only eight years ago, are uncovering Dedanite dwellings of the Biblical era and inscriptions from the Lihyan Kingdom that date back to the 5th century BC. We explored tombs of these periods and rocks inscribed with early Islamic writings that had been discovered only last year as well as the ancient walled town of Al-`Ula, a maze of mud-brick houses and alleys. For history lovers and adventure seekers, there is no destination more exciting than one that is still in the midst of discovery—and on the cusp of great change.