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How a mega-tourism project in Saudi Arabia linked up with Team BikeExchange

Saudi Arabia via the AlUla project is the latest Middle East country to enter the WorldTour.

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Who says advertising doesn’t pay?

Darach McQuaid, an advisor to Team BikeExchange, was watching a race early this season when he spotted ads promoting AlUla, a spectacular desert destination in northwest Saudi Arabia. Struck by the images, McQuaid jumped on the Internet, tracked down who was behind the project and used LinkedIn to make contact.

Flash-forward a few months later, and the Aussie-backed GreenEdge franchise brings on a new, multi-year team partner to the Tour de France with AlUla.

“It was a good fit right from the start,” McQuaid told VeloNews in a phone call. “What we’re trying to do is bring eyeballs to a new luxury and eco-friendly destination, and with how cycling is booming around the globe, the team can help deliver their goals.”

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AlUla hopes to position itself as the next upscale adventure sport and cultural destination in the Middle East. With a lush desert oasis at the center, AlUla is a string of canyons, archaeological sites, ancient tombs, and expansive mountains that dates back 7,000 years.

Think Petra meets the Grand Canyon. The vast area also includes Hegra, the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Saudi Arabia, as well as important habitat for rare desert wildlife.

AlUla, an emerging adventure-sport destination in Saudi Arabia, signed a deal to partner with Team BikeExchange through 2023. Photo: Team BikeExchange

Officials at AlUla see the new partnership with Team BikeExchange as an ideal vehicle to hit its target audience.

“Our goal is to turn AlUla into the cycling hub of Saudi Arabia,” Phillip Jones, chief management and marketing Officer for the Royal Commission for AlUla, told VeloNews. “It reminds me a bit of St. George in Utah. There are great roads and endless mountain biking and gravel possibilities, along with other adventure sports.”

Saudi Arabia is trying to catch up in the tourism game in the Middle East.

Its neighbors like Dubai and Qatar are decades ahead of Saudi Arabia when it comes to attracting upscale travelers, and the Saudi government is backing four “giga” projects across the peninsula that will jump-start tourism in the country.

Saudi Arabia was largely off-limits to tourists until 2017, but the government is opening up access in a bid to diversify its oil-based economy going into the next century. The Saudi government is pouring billions into infrastructure, including airports, new roads, hotels, communication, and other amenities.

Jones said boutique hotel brands Habitas and Banyan Tree are scheduled to open in AlUla.

“We hope to have 1,000 beds,” he said. “We are building a destination from the ground up. Right now, it’s largely unknown, and we are appealing to a luxury, global audience.”

Saudi Arabia is the latest Middle East nation to link up with WorldTour

That’s where the bike team partnership comes in.

AlUla wants to use the team’s high profile in races like the Tour de France and La Course to help telegraph its message to the cycling community and upscale tourism markets in the United States, Europe, Asia, and Australia.

“The region is the size of Belgium, and there are only 40,000 people living there,” said Jones, an avid cyclist, and triathlete. “It’s sparsely populated, so you can ride your bike 10 miles and only see one car.”

It’s not a naming-rights deal right now — the team will remain Team BikeExchange through at least 2021 — but AlUla will feature prominently on the shoulder of the team’s jersey to assure the highest exposure.

The deal includes backing both of the men’s and women’s teams through the 2023 season, something Jones said proved decisive.

“The fact that GreenEdge is so committed to women’s sport is very important to us,” Jones said. “There are a lot of changes happening in Saudi Arabia, and what we want to do is use the project for the empowerment of women in sports.”

The AlUla project, which is designated as a “Royal Commission” with support from the highest reaches of the royal house of the Saudi government, is the latest Middle East nation to enter the international peloton.

Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain all have either backed teams or races during the past two decades.

For the GreenEdge organization, the deal comes as a boon following a difficult 2020 season that saw the team nearly merge in an ill-fated deal with Manuela Fundación of Spain, and saw staff and rider salaries reduced during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The team sees committed backing from longtime owner Gerry Ryan through 2022, but moves are happening to assure the team’s continuity, and the deal with AlUla is part of that ongoing process.

“The sport is in a great place right now,” McQuaid said. “COVID was a massive challenge for businesses, and cycling did a great job last year to deliver great racing when people were locked inside their houses. The commercial side is picking up.”

The team will likely host a training camp there next year before the UAE Tour, officials said.

Financial terms were not revealed, but the deal runs through the end of the 2023 season.