Businesses do well when they combine different trends: a growing interest in luxury travel, plus Saudi Arabia as a destination and sustainability have been woven together by The Red Sea Development Company.
The company is built around nature and culture, and sets new standards for sustainable development to put Saudi Arabia on the global tourism map. The company’s ambition is to go beyond sustainability to address the unfolding ecological and climate crisis and undo some of the damage that has already been caused.
With the first guests set to arrive in the region by the end of this year, John Pagano, Group CEO at The Red Sea Development Company and AMAALA, explains what he calls “a regenerative development approach”: "Sustainability is about not making a mess of the place. It's standing still, whereas regeneration is trying to make the place better. Rather than starting our designs and our construction immediately, we brought in the scientists to work alongside us. We started to think about what it is we were going to develop. And we partnered with the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, the foremost leaders in studying and understanding the Red Sea.”
This partnership led to the largest marine spatial planning simulation ever undertaken, mapping some two and a half thousand square kilometers and including a 90-island archipelago dividing the space into 30,000 squares. These were then assigned conservation values, and developers iterated different ideas around how to place developments and travel routes.
Pagano says that the targets are ambitious but achievable. "Rather than maintaining the status quo, we set ourselves a target of increasing the net conservation value by 30 percent. How do we do that? We are actually growing more mangroves and coral. Unlike other reefs, our coral seems to have this ability to withstand the higher sea temperatures and salinity levels that exist in the Red Sea.”
The decision to regenerate has meant embracing renewables - the development will be the biggest tourism destination in the world powered solely by renewable energy - and making tough decisions about where to build. Pagano cites an island called Waqqadi:
“This island has the right orientation, white sandy beaches, turquoise water. But we came to realize that this particular island was a favored nesting site for the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle. If we develop the island, we potentially contribute to the extinction of the species. It wasn't a very long discussion. Today, all of my team and the people that come to visit us, receive a turtle to wear on their lapel as a reminder to respect the fact that the turtles were there first.”
In fact, some 75 percent of the 90 islands in the region will be untouched and a number will be designated special conservation areas, curated by rangers, with highly limited access to tourists. As Pagano says:
“We are showing the rest of the world that if you overdevelop, you potentially shoot yourself in the foot. We're limiting our development so that we can protect and enhance, and hopefully others will follow our lead for regenerative development.”
Saudi Arabia's vision 2030 is about diversifying the economy, of which tourism plays an important role: tourism and hospitality represented over 10 percent of global GDP, employing almost one in four people pre-pandemic. Tourism currently generates just 3.4 percent of Saudi Arabia’s GDP, much of that through religious tourism to Mecca and Medina. The Red Sea could be responsible for boosting that by as much as 1 percent and is being treated as a showcase for the kingdom’s move towards resort development and tourism, creating up to 60,000 jobs directly with a further 60,000 jobs reliant on the scheme for both The Red Sea project and AMAALA.
Pagano says that here too are opportunities for sustainability to come into play:
“Regeneration for us is all encompassing and we want to be carbon neutral from day one. We have an entirely green mobility strategy. We're even looking at electric powered planes, vertical takeoff and landing crafts, and we hope to be flying a hydrogen sea plane in an experimental fashion next year, demonstrating our regenerative commitment.”
With so many luxury destinations in the world, will this one stand out? Pagano has confidence:
“Saudi Arabia is going to be intriguing, a culture that previously hasn't been accessible. Our environment is pristine. Celebrating it and naturally protecting it and enhancing it, I think is going to resonate well.
The Saudi people are probably the warmest and most hospitable people. Tourism is a bridge between cultures and it'll help people get a better understanding of what Saudi Arabia really is.”