The Rise of Experiential Travel in the Middle East

By Isabel Tapp, Founder of Luxury Communications Council, GCC Chapter

Gone are the days of visiting 20 cities in 20 days. Today’s travellers are seeking so much more than a box-ticking trip that takes them on a whirlwind tour of the major sights. In recent years, we’ve seen travellers’ motivations and expectations shift towards experiential travel – immersing themselves in the culture of each destination, and experiencing meaningful encounters that last a lifetime. 

In the Middle East, that translates to an authentic Arabian experience that has previously been lacking from our glitzy yet somewhat generic resorts. The best among them offer a true sense of place, from the fragrant cup of kawha (local cardamom-spiced coffee) on arrival to curated desert adventures via camel or open-top jeep.

In the United Arab Emirates, the Chedi Al Bait Sharjah offers a deep immersion in Emirati culture. Set within a collection of seven heritage manor houses, this captivating boutique hotel brings the culture and history of the UAE to every corner, with authentic Arabian architecture, textiles, and artworks throughout. An on-site Museum and Library reveal the secrets of the Emirates, with rare antiquities and historic books to peruse.   

The newly opened Chedi Katara in Doha, Qatar, is set within the Karata Cultural Village, a 100-hectare enclave that’s home to the Qatar Museum Gallery, Katara Art Center (KAC) for emerging artists, and the Al Thuraya Planetarium. Beyond the cultural spoils on your doorstep, the resort reveals Doha’s untold charms via cultural and photography tours, Bedouin desert camp visits, and cruises on historic wooden dhow boats. 

One of the most fascinating places to watch as it emerges onto the global scene is Saudi Arabia. Capturing the mystery and majesty of this previously hidden Kingdom, Banyan Tree AlUla brings travellers to the beating heart of AlUla, where glamping-inspired villas seem to melt effortlessly into the desert landscape. 

From here you can explore the breath-taking UNESCO-listed site of Hegra, the intricate ruins of Old Town, and Jabal Alfil, or Elephant Rock, a geological marvel rising 50 metres into the sky. The spa, too, is deeply embedded in its location – from the stunning Rock Pool that weaves between two sandstone cliffs, to the Arabian-accented treatments that draw on the healing powers of native desert ingredients. 

In the wake of the pandemic, world-class wellness has become a non-negotiable. It’s no longer enough to have a ho-hum spa and a fitness centre with basic gym equipment. Instead, savvy travellers are seeking an immersive wellbeing experience integrated throughout their stay, from health-boosting in-room amenities such as Pilates equipment and free weights, to nutritious dining options that go well beyond the token vegan dish.  

The bar is being set by resorts such as Velaa Private Island Maldives, which has recently opened an entire Wellbeing Village dedicated to detoxification and rejuvenation. This expansive space is home to Ayurvedic treatments, a resident Osteopath, and immersive programmes spanning 5 to 21 days.  

By seeking out these extraordinary moments amid nature, culture and wellness, travellers come home with so much more than a suntan, creating a meaningful connection to each destination, and learning more about themselves in the process.