De Souza, who spent the first 17 years of her travel and tourism career with Oberoi Hotels and then the next 17 with Tourism Victoria, still remembers the day she got the call from the recruitment agency, asking her if she’d be interested in the role – to work on the building of a destination brand for Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, as part of Saudi Vision 2030.

“My first answer was no because of everything I thought I knew about Saudi Arabia but she told me to think about it. And the more I researched AIUla, the more I looked at its journey through time, the masterplan and the vision, and the more I spoke to people involved in the project, the more I knew this was the job for me,” said the veteran marketer.

“It was like I had been given a blank slate, to set up my own marketing team and to inherit the building of the brand of a very special destination,” she said, “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Indeed, the Royal Commission of AIUla’s mission is to transform the region, which has over 200,000 years of largely underexplored history, including the Nabataean city of Hegra, the ancient Kingdoms Dadanite and Lihyanite, and AlUla Old Town, into a unique, experience for visitors from around the world.

Well, now those years of planning have culminated in the first global advertising campaign by AlUla, “Forever Revitalising”. Launched in February, it covers nine core markets in six languages and will be integrated across multiple channels, including videos such as this one.

This is a campaign with sustainability at its core,” said a visibly excited de Souza. “It’s not a smorgasboard of pretty pictures but more about the purposeful journey we are on, preserving and bringing to life stories of a very special place.”

The key markets for this luxury boutique destination are GCC, Europe (Germany, Italy and UK), which currently accounts for 16% of visitors, and the US as well as China and India. “We have strong aspirations for China and India, we think they are going to be biggies for us,” said de Souza.

Backed by a direct report team of six, covering digital, e-commerce, research and insights and global distribution, de Souza said, “It’s our privilege to take AIUla to the world. During the pandemic, the domestic market and GCC markets were the main markets, and it was the beginning of domestic tourism as well for Saudi.

“Now we have a big repeat market, we have built up a prolific calendar of events, and we have great pride in showcasing AIUla to the world.”

Tapping into her experience in Tourism Victoria in which Melbourne was successful in differentiating itself from Sydney, by tapping into deeper cultural themes such as food and coffee, as well as positioning itself around events, de Souza said, “There are learnings from those years. As a marketer today, you need to be razor sharp with who your customers are and be personalized in your marketing. We did a major upgrade to a new marketing stack with Adobe Suite. We have set benchmarks for social media.

“Our campaign is integrated with tactical activities, working with airlines and tour operators with call-to-action. In Saudi and the UAE, our campaigns are more direct. DMCs and travel trade are important for all medium and long haul markets including China and India but we recognise the more digitally savvy younger audiences there, for whom these channels are critical,” she said.

De Souza recounted a recent Chinese influencer who documented “The Diva’s Journey in AIUla”. “It was massive, and its impact has been huge. The celebrity phenomenon is huge for younger people.”

In 2024, AIUla is expected to receive about 292,000 visitors, and 381,000 by 2025. The target is 1.1m visitors by 2030 and 2m by 2035. It currently has under 1,000 hotel room stock with names such as Banyan Tree, Habitas and Cloud 7. It is projecting 5,500 rooms by 2030, with brands such as Aman coming in. “We need to accelerate room stock. The room night is a major ingredient of total spend.”

Positioned as a boutique luxury destination, it commands an average spend of 1,600-1,700 SAR per day, said de Souza. “It’s about the quality of the experience. Our resorts, events and festivals support that positioning.”

A key aspect of the destination building and one which de Souza finds most rewarding is the involvement of the local community. “We work with local schools and women, the whole integration of women, into the economy is fundamental to Saudi Vision 2030.

“Women are being encouraged and trained to revive ancient arts and crafts, pottery and weaving. We have courses to help SMEs build businesses. We send out local chefs for training and they are not returning and regurgitating foreign cuisine, but blending what they’ve learnt with local cuisine,” she said.

Of course, there is the talent challenge. “There was no ready-made skills base here,” she said, “so initially we signed up with companies who can drawn on foreign talent from countries like Jordan, Morocco and Eastern Europe.

“But now we have lots of Saudis and AIUlans working with us. It will take time for locals to get to the required level. It is one thing to be demanding of high levels of service but it’s my experience and understanding that people will be forgiving if they feel the service is genuine and authentic.”

For de Souza, the personal and professional fulfilment has come from the clarity of the project – sustainability at its core as well as the grand ambition of the destination beyond tourism. “In the context of natural heritage and wildlife, it’s about bringing back the flora and fauna of yesteryears and recreating the eco systems that will – we hope one day – see the successful reintroduction of the Arabian leopard in to the landscape, recognising that they number less than 200 in the world currently.”

She said, “AIUla started as an oasis, the stopping point of caravan routes, it became an exchange of trade, spices, cultures, languages and ideas. We are bringing that back to life. And we have local AIUlans being trained as story tellers. Why would I not want to be part of it? I am helping to shape from the ground up a destination that will be eminently successful and differentiated in a purposeful way.”

by Yeoh Siew Hoon