As the world reopens to travel, the Middle East and North Africa offer opportunities to explore ancient history, modern wonders, breathtaking natural beauty and unmitigated luxury.
At this intersection of antiquity and modernity, visitors can immerse themselves in traditional markets that have thrived from the eras of Alexander the Great and Marco Polo up to today. You can experience life as it was lived thousands of years ago and — in the same day — take in the view from the tallest building in the world or eat a five-star, locally-sourced meal in a former monastery.
The global tourism market is growing more than 2% each year and contributed more than 9.25 trillion dollars to the global economy in 2019. The tourism market of the Middle East far outpaces that, growing at over 8% each year as leaders of nations, including Saudi Arabia and Oman, work to diversify their oil-based economies by bolstering international tourism and loosening restrictions on non-religious travel. Saudi Arabia hopes to make tourism 10% of its domestic gross product by 2030. Savvy investors, hoteliers and travelers should take advantage of this market while it is not overcrowded and is rapidly becoming known as a top region to visit.
Luxury Travel Trends
“In recent times, we have seen a totally new trend, focused on authentic experiences coupled with the natural beauties of the country,” said Habib El Fassi El Fihry, General Manager of Visit Morocco. “Spending a night in the middle of nowhere in a luxury camp on the sand dunes of the Sahara, enjoying the authenticity of the countryside in rural, socially-responsible and inclusive ecolodges. Meeting with the local population and sharing mind-opening experiences by spending a day ‘living their lives’ in their villages.”
Middle Eastern travel embraces the region’s natural resources and traditional cultures, while also providing luxury and once in a lifetime experiences, such as overnights at Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa Dubai, or a sunset tour of the ancient rock city of Petra Jordan.
In addition to cultural heritage, countries like Oman are seeking to appeal to travelers looking for more experiential accommodations, as well as those looking to spend more time out of doors in the post Covid world.
Some of the newest hotels, including Anantara Al Jabal Akhdar Resort and The Chedi Muscat, allow travelers to experience the local natural wonders while also lavishing in luxury suites and world-class amenities. Travelers can take advantage of local resources, simultaneously supporting the nearby economy, preserving natural resources and cultural practices, and offering travelers unforgettable and unique experiences.
The Oman Desert Nights Camp allows travelers to live among the Bedouin desert residents, experiencing traditional activities like camel riding, as well as modern activities like four wheeling or dune boarding, and spend the nights under the stars, with brightness unencumbered by light pollution.
Luxury Travel: History
Travelers who wish to experience life as it was during the Bronze Age of the Middle East can visit archaeological sites predating the Common Era.
In Oman, visitors can explore Bronze Age Beehive Tombs in the cities of Bat, Al-Khutm and Al-Ayn, or see the Land of Frankincense, which produced the ancient perfume so valuable it was used as currency.
In Jordan, the UNESCO Heritage Sites of Petra and of Quseir Amra offer visitors the chance to travel through time, while Feynan Ecolodge allows tourists to experience Jordan’s Dana Biosphere Reserve firsthand, from vegetables, goat cheeses and yogurts produced nearby to locally made handicrafts.
Although Israel has been a popular hub for travelers seeking to explore the origins of three of the major world religions, more recent travelers have come to appreciate the nation’s diverse terrains and climatic zones. Visitors can take in the Mediterranean Coast, the Sea of Galilee or the region’s ancient forests, or relax at the U Boutique Kinneret Hotel’s private beach or with an outdoor massage bed at the Carmel Forest Spa Resort.
Marrakesh also offers travelers a unique blend of history, culture, and modern amenities. “Because of its geographical location, at the crossroads of Africa, Europe and the Middle East, this millenary nation has soaked in all the cultural influences brought by the different tribes and dynasties throughout history, and this is what makes it unique,” said Habib.
Luxury visits include the famed Mamounia spa combines the ancient use of heat with cellular cosmetics from Valmont, while the Selman Marrakech treats visitors to a view of the Atlas Mountains and Arabian thoroughbreds.
Saudi Arabia plays host to some of the most sacred locations of Islam. While Mecca is unavailable to visitors outside of the Muslim faith, the city of Alula offers Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO Heritage Site, the Medain Saleh. Featuring 111 monumental cave tombs, the more than 2,000-year-old city provides visitors a glimpse into life in the ancient Middle East, as well as the opportunity to visit a spot on the Islamic Prophet Muhammad’s journey. Currently in development are an archeological museum and cave hotel designed by award winning French architect Jean Nouvel.
Dubai has its own share of historic and culturally significant sites, including the Al Ain Oasis, another UNESCO Heritage site dating back 4000 years, which served as a stop on trade routes between Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Travelers can also explore Al Bidya Mosque in Fujairah. The oldest mosque in the UAE, made of mud and stone and built into a hillside, still hosts daily prayers, even while tales of its origin remain a mystery to the local populace.
Luxury Travel: Adventure
Visitors can camp under the stars at the UAE’s Bedouin Oasis, or near one of many preserved oases deep in the deserts of Oman or Saudi Arabia. Visitors can also explore the Ramon Crater in Israel from the Beresheet Hotel, or any of the other many natural wonders of these regions, from mangrove swamps and mountains to canyons and white sand beaches.
In Oman, the Wahiba Sands offers travelers the opportunity to share the Bedouin lifestyle among the sand dunes, including annual camel races, desert camping under the stars, sand boarding and off-roading in 4x4s. Visitors to Oman can also explore Wadi Ghul, the Grand Canyon of Arabia, traversing the Balcony Walk to the abandoned village of Al Sab for a spectacular sunset experience. The Ras Al Jinz Turtle Reserve encompasses shorelines, deserts, oases and mountains, and visitors can encounter the Green Sea Turtles native to the region.
Saudi Arabia is an adrenaline junkie’s dream, from rock climbing and paragliding in the Asir Mountains, to sandboarding the red sand dunes of Ad-Dahna and hiking in Taif.
Tourists seeking unique outdoor experiences in the United Arab Emirates can climb the Stairway to Heaven, a 1500 meter ascent at Wadi Ghalilah, or cool down with a kayak or water bike ride around Hatta Lake. Nature lovers can explore more than 250 species of birds, including a herd of over 4,000 flamingos at the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve.
Luxury Travel: Cosmopolitan
In the thriving metropolis of Tel Aviv, visitors can experience millennia of history while staying at the Setai Tel Aviv, set in a former Ottoman prison with connections to the crusades. Architecture and design buffs can check out the White City Center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site aimed to preserve the city’s Bauhaus and International Style architecture. TLV Mall features both luxury designers and Middle East mainstays.
In Muscat, Oman’s capital city, the Bait Al Zubair Museum juxtaposes the ancient surroundings with contemporary Middle Eastern art. Currently in progress, the Muscat Cultural Center will also feature the National Archives, Library, and Theater.
The Saadiyat Island Cultural District in Abu Dhabi features the Middle Eastern outposts of the Guggenheim and the Louvre, with artwork spanning the eastern and western worlds, as well as the Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Center, designed by award-winning architect Zaha Hadid. Visitors to the UAE can also explore the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Built to embody the Islamic message of peace, tolerance, and diversity, the modern building includes 82 domes, more than 1000 columns, 24-carat gold gilded chandeliers, and the world’s largest hand-knotted carpets.
Fans of contemporary Middle Eastern art will enjoy Saudi Arabia’s Ithra Museum, featuring a 90-foot-high work by modern master Giuseppe Penone. The Dubai Mall features haute couture, from Armani and Alexander McQueen to Celine and Louis Vuitton.
Luxury Travel: Cuisine
In Oman, gourmands can enjoy fresh, locally grown dates, as well as the local specialty Shuwa Meat, which is lamb rubbed in spices, wrapped in banana or palm leaves and cooked in a communal oven in a pit over several days.
The United Arab Emirates also features specialized cuisine, including Mahalabia, a rosewater and cardamom infused milk pudding dessert with origins in the Sassanid Persian Empire, as well as Quzi, a dish made with lamb, roasted nuts, and raisins, and served over a bed of fresh rice.
Saudi Arabia is known for Arabic coffee, which is often roasted, ground and brewed fresh before it is spiced with cardamom and saffron. Kabsa, a communal rice and chicken platter, originated in Saudi Arabia but is served throughout the Middle East, including the UAE.
Luxury Travel Considerations
While travel to the Middle East has become more commonplace in the last decade, visitors should still obey local regulations and be respectful of the region’s unique cultural practices. Guidelines may change from country to country, so travelers should research their specific locales before packing.
As of 2019, Saudi Arabia opened its doors to international tourists for the first time. Visitors can apply for visas through the Embassy of Saudi Arabia, and can spend anywhere up to 90 or 180 days exploring this country’s many ancient and modern wonders, from the Al-Ahsa Oasis to the Kingdom Center Tower.
As avid travelers and luxury hospitality branding experts, Main & Rose is helping clients take advantage of the flourishing tourism industry in the Middle East, showcasing the area’s vast cultural, social and natural allure.