The travel industry is a critically important part of the world’s economy. The sector provides jobs for nearly 300 million people, supports well over a billion of their family members, and accounts for more than 10 per cent of global GDP. There were 1.5 billion international tourist arrivals in 2019 – that’s a lot of people moving around the world.
But while the economic and social benefits of travel are undeniable, they come at a considerable cost. Travel now accounts for 5 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions. And there are other impacts. Coral reefs are destroyed to make way for marinas, or simply because of the impact of too many people. Waste and pollution are increased.
There is a growing realisation that tourism, along with many other human activities, needs to be far more sustainable and even regenerative. And leading the way in regenerative tourism is The Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC), the developer behind one of the world’s most ambitious and regenerative tourism projects, The Red Sea Project.
The destination is a luxury 28,000 square kilometre development in Saudi Arabia that puts sustainability at its heart. Sustainability was built into this project from the outset. The first step was to commission a ground-breaking marine spatial planning exercise, working with scientists at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. The aim of the initiative was to assess the developmental impact and model how biodiversity could be enhanced. The development zone was mapped into 30,000 squares, each of which was assigned a conservation value. This data enabled detailed planning of how the area would be used, or not used, by guests.
Take, for example, Al-Waqqadi island. This is a postcard of a place, with beautiful sunsets, white sand and clear turquoise water – perfect for luxury travellers. It’s also a favourite nesting site for the endangered hawksbill sea turtle. It wasn’t a hard decision for TRSDC to leave it untouched. In fact, of the 90 islands in the development area, only 22 will be developed. Of the rest, nine will receive additional protection as special conservation zones.
As a result of the marine spatial planning exercise, the concept master plan for the destination predicts a 30 per cent net conservation benefit by 2040.
Extra care is being taken to build the resort using sustainable techniques. An innovative off-site manufacturing approach is being taken for many of the buildings, with prefinished modules being constructed at a remote factory location and shipped to the site, where they are assembled. The controlled factory approach minimises waste during construction and also limits the number of workers on site, something that substantially reduces environmental impact.
Many of the construction materials selected for use on the project are sustainable. “Green concrete” that substitutes fly ash for Portland cement is produced onsite and used across the development, meaning less water is consumed and less CO2 released. Additionally, all buildings are planned to meet the LEED Platinum green building certification.
The human side of sustainability is also important. Construction workers are housed in apartments with private washing facilities in modern compounds. There are gardens, cinemas and sports facilities for relaxation, together with restaurants specialising in a variety of cuisines for the international workforce. Medical and spiritual needs are also attended to.
Once completed, the destination will be operated sustainably, without having a damaging impact on the environment. The annual number of tourists will be capped at one million in a large area that could easily accommodate ten times as many.
Consumption by guests and staff will be sustainable: locally grown food will be provided and there is a policy of zero single-use plastic and zero waste to landfill. The destination will be 100 per cent carbon neutral, without resorting to carbon offsets – all energy used will be renewable (solar and wind power) with the world’s largest battery storage facility providing back-up at night.
By powering the destination solely with renewable energy, the notional saving in CO2 emissions to the atmosphere by TRSDC not having to draw an equivalent amount of power from the national grid is around 470,000 tonnes per year. This is equivalent to electricity for nearly 78,000 homes.
The project goes beyond the usual. Sensors will monitor changes to sea salinity, for instance, which can change as a consequence of the desalination plants that will provide water to the resort. Wind patterns will also be monitored to track changes caused by development. Even light pollution is managed: the developers are working with Cundall to establish lighting guidelines so that light pollution is reduced, enabling the destination to become the largest dark skies reserve in the world.
The philosophy of the developers is that sustainability is not enough. This development is designed to build back better, to reverse some of the damage we have done to our world. In particular there is an ambition to improve biodiversity in the region, which will be achieved by actively breeding endangered flora and fauna, eradicating invasive species and creating no-fishing areas. The project hopes to share its approach and research to support coral reefs around the world that are suffering from the impact of over-tourism, climate change and bleaching events.
There is also an ambition to reduce greenhouse gasses. Mangroves and seagrasses, plants that sequester more carbon than trees, are being planted as part of the +30 commitment. Emerging technologies such as mechanical trees which scrub carbon from the atmosphere are being watched to see whether they can bring additional value, and techniques such as farming marine algae are being considered. Guests will arrive with the knowledge that carbon emissions from their travel will have been reversed by the destination’s operation.
Pollution is also being addressed by the employment of dozens of “sustainability stewards” who are responsible for cleaning beaches of seaborne rubbish as well as educating local inhabitants about recycling and waste management.
Regenerative tourism is also about strengthening local communities. The project will provide 35,000 direct jobs, plus 35,000 indirect and induced, with many hundreds of people being trained in news skills well suited to careers in the rapidly growing Saudi tourism sector. New revenue streams are being brought into the area by the project, enhancing the wellbeing of the local community and generating a positive attitude to the development.
Good for business, good for the region, essential for the planet
This is a project that makes good business sense and promises long-term success. A pristine destination and welcoming hosts will mean happy visitors who will pay premium prices and who will act as advocates for the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia.
Regenerative tourism can offer greater rewards for business and at the same time deliver memorable, unique and luxurious experiences for guests. More than this, though, it is a way of maintaining and protecting the environment. And that is something that will benefit all of us.
written by Jeremy Swinfen-Green for The Red Sea Development Company
John Pagano, CEO of The Red Sea Development Company