Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli serenades ancient Saudi city

Al-Ula (Saudi Arabia) (AFP) –


Against the backdrop of rock-cut tombs and sand-swept ruins, Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli regaled revellers on Thursday in an ancient Saudi desert city at the centre of the kingdom's tourism push.

Bocelli performed alongside his family members at UNESCO World Heritage site Hegra in the kingdom's Al-Ula governorate, a long-isolated area seen widely as an open-air museum.

Saudi Arabia has splurged billions to develop sites like it in an attempt to build a tourism industry from scratch, as part of efforts to diversify its oil-reliant economy.

Bocelli, who has performed in the kingdom at least twice before, was the "first artist in known history to stage a concert within the city walls of Hegra", organisers of the televised event said.

The singer belted out Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" in a duet with his young daughter Virginia to an audience that organisers said was limited to less than 300, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The centuries-old Al-Ula, an area roughly the size of Belgium where Nabatean tombs and art are chiselled into caramel-hued rock, is seen as the centrepiece of Saudi tourism attractions.

The once reclusive kingdom began issuing tourist visas for the first time in 2019.

Saudi Arabia has invited international musicians –- from Janet Jackson to 50 Cent and Korean pop group BTS –- for concerts that were unimaginable in the conservative country just four years ago, loosening decades-old restrictions on entertainment.

But the pandemic has put a brake on the country's ambitious push to revamp its global image and draw tourists.

Saudi Arabia has reported more than 395,000 coronavirus infections and 6,700 deaths from Covid-19.

The country also faces growing international scrutiny of its human rights record following the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in its Istanbul consulate.