Riyadh: A hospitality company that was once best known for Burning Man-style tents is planning a trio of otherworldly, towering structures jutting out of rocky mountains in northwest Saudi Arabia.
The three new hotels, which look like they’re straight from a Dune movie set, will be run by Habitas, a company that started out in luxury camping. It’s now expanding, all with the idea of melding the luxury of hotel brands like Aman with the sensibility of the Burning Man festival.
The newly announced projects are part of the kingdom’s trillon-dollar push to open up its borders and economy to tourists, and will be located within the Neom district by the Gulf of Aqaba, just across from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, in a new destination called Leyja. Each of the 40-room properties will have a different focus: adventure, wellness and nature.
The properties will be in addition to Habitas hotels planned for elsewhere in Saudi Arabia, financed with $400 million from the Saudi Tourism Development Fund, Habitas CEO Oliver Ripley says. The company wants to create a connected ring of hotels, or a circuit, throughout the country, giving guests an opportunity to see the kingdom while always staying in Habitas hotels.
Striking images of the Leyja hotels circulated more than two weeks ago, when Neom released videos of the project with extremely realistic-looking renderings. The brand hadn’t been revealed as Habitas until now. Neom says the hotels are expected to be finished and opened around 2028, with construction starting early next year.
Neom approached Habitas with designs already in hand, Ripley says, but Habitas has been expanding since its founding beyond tents; its new Habitas on Hudson in upstate New York is located in a former manor house.
Ripley often says Habitas is more about creating experiences than just providing a place to stay. In Leyja, that starts with the arrival at the welcome center at the mouth of the wadi, or valley. “You are asked to take a moment to pause,” Ripley says. “You go through your little welcome ceremony, and you set your intention and purpose.” Guests are then told about the history and culture of the region.
And then they have to walk. A lot. From the welcome center, the first hotel is a hike of 3.5 kilometers, or about 2 miles, which takes about 45 minutes to an hour. (But don’t worry, you don’t have to carry your bags.) “You’re not being dropped off in your car and greeted by the front door guys,” Ripley says. “You have to walk. And it’s one of the most dramatic and immersive and also humbling walks.”
Asked what they’ll do about people who aren’t able to walk, Ripley says they’re still figuring that out, but there will be alternatives. “Maybe there’ll be horses, maybe there’ll be other ways that we can make the journey more immersive,” he says.
The company’s first hotel in Saudi Arabia, in the ancient city of Al Ula, is attracting about 70 per cent of its guests from within Saudi Arabia, and 30 per cent from abroad. That the hotel is often fully booked, Ripley says. Depending on the time of year, rooms start at around 2,600 Saudi riyal, including tax, or about $693. Room rates at Habitas’s Leyja hotels haven’t been determined but will be in a similar category to those at Al-Ula, Ripley says.
The once closed-off Saudi Arabia now aims to have 70 million international tourists a year by 2030. Earlier this week, luxury hotel brand Six Senses announced it would add a property in Al-Ula to its Saudi portfolio.