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How Saudi Arabia is building its reputation as a foodie destination



Mohammed bin Salman’s kingdom isn’t just counting on sports and large-scale futuristic projects to build its reputation as a tourism destination. Saudi Arabia also wants to appeal to foodies.

In the past, vacation destinations might have been chosen for their scenic beauty or cultural sites, but today, food has become a key criterion. In a study published last summer by HelloFresh, almost half of French people (47%) said that local cuisine played a decisive role in their choice of vacation. Some 39% have even chosen to visit a country for the opportunity to discover its gastronomy.

And it’s not the strong roots of France’s culinary heritage that make French travellers an exception. At the end of 2022, a study carried out by the Eurostar rail company revealed that six in 10 British vacationers travelled overseas to try out restaurants. In fact, 23% had even drawn up a list of restaurants to book one day.

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Alain Ducasse comes to Al-‘Ula

Becoming a major tourist destination is a significant undertaking, involving such grandiose projects as the futuristic city of Aquellum. As part of its drive to attract international visitors, Saudi Arabia plans to reach out to foodies, among other tourists, to reach its target of 100 million visitors by 2030.

And things aren’t being done by halves, since French chef Alain Ducasse is helping to craft the gastronomic reputation of Saudi Arabia, or more precisely of Al-‘Ula. Located in the northwest of the country, this oasis shaped by spectacular sandstone mountains and home to thousand-year-old archaeological sites – such as the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hegra – is one of the new destinations that should put Saudi Arabia on the tourism map.

Alain Ducasse’s arrival comes as no surprise, given that the region is supported by France, through the Agence française pour le développement dAlula, presided over by the former Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Dates, vegetables, citrus fruit

Here, Alain Ducasse has access to plenty of plant-based resources to pursue his culinary philosophy based on the concept of “naturality.”

Since January 20, the great French chef has been operating a restaurant, where one of his protégés, Afonso Salvação Barreto, has been appointed as the executive chef. Presented as a pop-up concept operating with an unspecified deadline, the restaurant aims to combine the flavours of local produce from neighbouring producers with the techniques typical of French cuisine. The concept is to bring an oasis experience directly to diners’ tables.

Chief tourism officer for the Royal Commission for AlUla, Phillip Jones, said: “Representing a significant leap forward in Al-‘Ula’s evolution as a premier culinary destination, Ducasse in Al-‘Ula is meticulously designed to captivate both residents and visitors alike. We have crafted the restaurant to not only introduce an unparalleled, refined dining experience to the city but also honour and incorporate Al-‘Ula’s precious natural resources that have long nourished ancient civilizations and modern residents.”

The road to becoming a culinary hotspot

Signing up Alain Ducasse shows just how much Saudi Arabia is hoping to build a reputation as a gastronomic destination. And who better than the world’s most Michelin-starred chef to help with that mission? But that’s not the kingdom’s only angle of attack. The country is planning to become a meeting place for professionals from the restaurant, food and bakery industries, by hosting a regional edition of the SIRHA food service trade show, an event held every two years in the French city of Lyon. The show is also known for hosting the Bocuse d’Or, one of the world’s most prestigious cooking contests. The first edition of SIRHA Arabia is scheduled for October 1-3, in the capital Riyadh.

This ambition to become a culinary destination is not new. It has been gradually taking shape over the last few years, with the arrival of the pastry chef, Christophe Adam, a former chief pastry chef at France’s high-end caterer Fauchon, who recently opened coffee shops in Jeddah and Riyadh. His signature dessert is the éclair.

Finally, Saudi Arabia called on Instagram’s pastry star, Cédric Grolet, for a documentary exploring the flavours of Saudi Arabia. The film, which also features a former contestant on the French version of Top Chef, Pierre Sang Boyer, was broadcast via the Discovery TV channel in 2022.

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