The Red Sea Development Company is setting new standards in sustainable development through its luxury, regenerative tourism project along Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast.
Over the past decade, sustainability has emerged as a crucial aspect of destination tourism. Developers are increasingly interested in offsetting the overburden of tourist activities on destinations, while at the same time, making them more accessible to visitors and allowing them to thrive. Pioneering a ‘regenerative’ approach to modern tourism, The Red Sea Development Company is taking sustainable solutions to the next level.
Through its ambitious Red Sea Project along Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Coast, the group is set to help open the Kingdom to millions of global visitors by 2030, positioning it as a global leader in modern luxury tourism while also generating a positive environmental and social impact.
SkiftX dives into the industry-leading project with John Pagano, CEO of The Red Sea Development Company, discussing the philosophy and vision behind Red Sea’s regenerative approach and what modern luxury travelers and the larger travel industry can expect from this showpiece new destination as we consider the future of sustainable tourism.
SkiftX: Can you give us a general background around how Saudi Arabia is transforming as a sustainable tourist destination?
John Pagano: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 set the framework for a diversified economy with three main themes: a vibrant society, a thriving economy, and an ambitious nation. Tourism plays a key role in achieving this aspiration.
While Saudi Arabia has long been known for welcoming religious tourists on a significant scale, it has so much more to offer. From a rich culture influenced by Bedouin traditions and Islamic heritage, to ancient sites like AlUla and Diriyah Gate, as well as breathtaking landscapes and the famed Saudi hospitality, there is plenty to surprise and delight international visitors.
It’s forecast that tourist arrivals worldwide will total 2.4 billion by 2027, generating an expenditure of $2.2 trillion. The Red Sea Project and AMAALA, two of the flagship Vision 2030 projects, will help attract a proportion of this spend to the country, creating significant employment and investment opportunities. These developments will be instrumental in opening the Kingdom up to global visitors.
SkiftX: How does The Red Sea Development Company fit in?
Pagano: The Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC) was established to drive the development of The Red Sea Project, a luxury, regenerative tourism destination that will set new standards in sustainable development and position Saudi Arabia on the global tourism map. As well as this, I took on the role of CEO to lead the development of AMAALA, a destination inspired by the arts, wellness, and the purity of the Red Sea. By bringing both destinations under the same leadership, we are using the learnings and practices of each project and applying them across both sites.
We are a proud central pillar of Vision 2030, creating socioeconomic opportunities for the people of Saudi Arabia, as well as setting new standards for the way we approach tourism globally. Between our two projects, we anticipate the creation of 120,000 direct, indirect, and induced jobs, and have already made progress in hiring residents of local communities. An example is the 45 Saudis who were trained and employed at our site landscaping nursery last year, the largest in the region.
SkiftX: What do you expect to be most appealing to travelers as they visit the destination?
Pagano: Along the Red Sea, guests will be able to enjoy 200 kilometers of pristine coastline, desert dunes, mountain canyons, and dormant volcanoes, as well as a wide range of flora and fauna. Guests can hike across beautiful landscapes, swim in our turquoise waters, and divers can enjoy our breathtaking, thriving corals. Across our resorts, there will be mountain biking and desert safaris, cultural heritage trips, and even the chance to visit a traditional camp to star gaze.
Throughout the island and inland resorts there will also be a strong hospitality and leisure offering, including a range of high-quality restaurants, retail facilities, and traditional markets selling our local produce, as well as marinas and luxury spas.
Our focus on sustainability is appealing as well. Even when tourism demand for Saudi Arabia was higher than ever before the pandemic, there was increasing awareness among travelers that their choices have impacts environmentally, socially, and economically. Rather than this trend slowing down, we expect it to accelerate as we move into the new normal. 2021 research from Booking.com revealed that 61 percent of global travelers said the pandemic made them want to travel more sustainably in the future.
By creating a destination that allows people to satisfy their thirst for travel and experience a new frontier in tourism, while also allowing them to have a positive impact on the environment and local communities, we offer an attractive proposition.
SkiftX: The Red Sea Development Company has a strong ethos around regenerative tourism. What does this mean exactly, and what is the reasoning behind this?
Pagano: Too often, tourism has had a disruptive and negative impact on the natural environment and local people. But traveler expectations today are changing, with the rise of sustainable tourism shifting what people want when they go on a trip. They are looking for interesting and immersive experiences, cultural exploration, and, importantly, guilt-free tourism.
TRSDC is spearheading a regenerative ethos that places the emphasis on going beyond ‘no harm’ to having an actively positive impact, both environmentally and socially. This philosophy is at the heart of everything we do.
SkiftX: The term ‘sustainability’ can often be overused or exaggerated when it comes to talking about tourism and destination development. How is TRSDC thinking about sustainability differently?
Pagano: For us, sustainability is not good enough. We need to go beyond sustainability, to not only protect the natural assets and prevent them from harm, but to give back to the environment and enhance habitats, wildlife, and the surrounding community.
At the very beginning of planning for The Red Sea Project, we undertook the largest ever marine spatial planning simulation to model the environmental impact of the development and operation of the destination. The findings actively informed our Master Plan which now predicts a 30 percent net conservation benefit by 2040. This will be achieved by enhancing biologically diverse habitats including mangroves, seagrass, corals, and land vegetation.
Traveler’s today are looking for responsible and authentic travel destinations, and our unique selling proposition is that guests can be safe in the knowledge that their travel choices and presence at the destination will not harm the environment. We will be attracting inquisitive travelers who are looking for genuine sustainability, conservation, and regeneration options, as well as experiences of new cultures.
SkiftX: What are some specific projects around sustainability or environmentalism you’re most excited about?
Pagano: When I first visited the Red Sea coast, I was truly taken by its beauty. Developing in this pristine and untouched environment is a serious responsibility. That’s why we aim to go beyond protection, to actually enhance this region, through both the construction phase and when in operation. We’re showing the world that tourism can be done in a better way. To me, that is the most exciting thing about The Red Sea Project and AMAALA.
A great example of this is the fact that we’re building the world’s largest battery storage facility to ensure The Red Sea Project is off grid and powered completely by renewable energy sources. To my knowledge, no other tourism development is even considering these possibilities, and we’re here on the ground, making them a reality.
Moreover, we’re taking the lessons learned on our flagship project and implementing them on others: AMAALA is currently in the market with its own utilities package, and we intend that the destination will also be powered by 100 percent renewable energy.
SkiftX: Covid-19 obviously put the travel industry on pause for a large chunk of the past 18 months. Can you give us some progress updates on The Red Sea Project, as well as what we can look forward to as you get closer to welcoming your first travelers by the end of 2022?
Pagano: Activity for the first phase of development is well underway and is on track to be completed in 2023, preceded by the opening of our first hotels at the end of next year. The project has surpassed significant milestones, with over 600 contracts signed to date, worth over $4.5 billion (SAR 17 billion).
Some exciting projects on the road to welcoming our first guests include our 100 percent renewably powered airport, which will serve one million tourists a year by 2030 with a schedule of domestic and international flights. It is sustainably designed with natural ventilation that minimizes reliance on air conditioning, helping us meet our goal of becoming a carbon neutral destination.
We’re close to opening key assets and facilities at our Coastal Village community which will eventually be home to the 14,000 employees who will operate the destination. This includes management offices, residential accommodation, and a 144-key three-star hotel.
The Southern Dunes resort is one of two inland locations at The Red Sea Project and is due to be completed in 2022, and work on the ground is well underway at this stage. The 80 key resort includes 40 villas, restaurants, central hotel buildings, a pool, and a spa.
Personally, I’m excited to welcome our first guests by the end of next year and show them what the future of sustainable tourism looks like.