Forging new sustainable standards for luxury travel

Saudi Arabia is embarking on one of the most ambitious regenerative tourism projects in history. With growing demand for individuals, corporations, and countries, to act responsibly and sustainably, how can tourism destinations develop regenerative tourism solutions? Aradhana Khowala, the Chair of the Red Sea Development Company's advisory board, shares why it's so important for luxury tourism to bounce back greener, and what learnings there are for smaller destinations looking to improve their own sustainable approaches.


Thank you for joining us, Aradhana. To start with, what does regenerative tourism mean to you?


All too often tourism has been disruptive for the destination, negatively impacting its inhabitants' well-being and the natural environment's conservation status.

The Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC) believes that nature is the world’s most important asset and we all have a part to play in protecting it. Regenerative tourism is the commitment to implement policies that don’t just avoid harming the environment but actually enhance it. This includes local, natural and cultural assets as well as the quality of life of local people.

This is why the company has pledged to contribute a 30 percent net conservation benefit by 2040 to not only protect but actively enhance the local area. TRSDC’s commitment to go beyond sustainability and set new standards in regenerative tourism is truly ground-breaking, and something we are keen to share with the rest of the world.


From our side, we can see a lot of bottom-up demand for greater sustainability across all areas. What can luxury tourism destinations do to move beyond the surface level of scrapping plastic straws and embed sustainability more deeply into their strategy?


To ensure a luxury tourism destination is as sustainable as possible, sustainable practices must be incorporated into the very heart of project planning, right through to development and operations. The commitment of regenerative tourism often requires a more complex way of working to ensure we are preserving and enhancing the natural environment, but this is always worth it when it comes to our planet.

For instance, before construction even began, TRSDC partnered with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) to launch a ground-breaking marine spatial planning (MSP) exercise. This process informed the master plan and the +30 commitment and has led to 75 percent of the island archipelago being left untouched, with nine islands designated special conservation zones.

TRSDC is also committing to carbon neutrality, clean travel, and renewable energy. The approach to sustainability is all-encompassing. I’m proud to say that the destination will be powered by 100 percent renewable energy 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, generated by solar and wind power. This is something that has never been attempted on this scale before. This effort is supported by the construction of the world’s largest battery storage facility to date allowing the destination to remain completely off grid. This in itself represents a saving in CO2 emissions to the atmosphere of around 470,000 tonnes per year.

Additionally, TRSDC is developing a regulatory framework that comprises of innovative policies and strategies to facilitate the ambitious sustainability and regeneration commitments. This includes the regulation of fisheries, conservation zones and the expansion of green and blue habitats to encourage regeneration and carbon sequestration.


Why is it important that the luxury tourism sector put sustainability at its core now as we look towards recovery? 

 

At The Red Sea Project, ‘luxury’ has a new meaning. Today’s luxury travellers seek exploration, not exploitation, and guided by a commitment to preserve and enhance this pristine location, we know that this destination is one that will leave a lasting impression on its visitors.

The pandemic has only served to highlight that change is needed. Travellers now expect greener destinations, and to meet these new expectations, we must build sustainability and regeneration into everything we do. And to put it simply, if we don’t prioritize sustainability, the destinations we all visit will not exist in the future. Tourism can be green but the travel industry as a whole will need to unite to drive real change.

The tourism industry cannot ignore these changing standards and consumer demands and will need to put sustainability at the core or risk significant loss. The industry currently accounts for 10.3 percent of global GDP and one job in every ten worldwide. This will only increase in a post-pandemic world with more and more people wanting to explore unchartered territories, whilst also ensuring they reduce their carbon footprint. Luxury tourism destinations need to understand that sustainability is a growing priority for consumers, and an urgent matter for our planet.


Having done some digging into the Red Sea  Development Company, I was honestly blown away by the scale and scope of the  project’s sustainable ambitions. I’ve got a lot of questions, but to start, I’d  like to ask about your goal of 100% carbon neutrality. What role does the  private sector play in pushing boundaries and driving innovation in the face of  global challenges such as finding solutions to climate change?

 

In November this year, TRSDC signed its largest contract to date for a multinational public-private partnership (PPP), focused exclusively on environmentally responsible renewable energy, water production, wastewater treatment and district cooling. The contract marks a significant step forward, establishing The Red Sea Project as the region’s first tourism destination powered solely by renewable energy. In fact, a tourism project of this size (28,000km2 – roughly the size of Belgium), powered solely by renewable energy, has never been achieved on this scale anywhere in the world.

The PPP agreement will generate up to 650,000 MWh of 100% renewable energy to supply phase one of the project and other utility systems, whilst emitting zero CO2. The resulting saving in CO2 emissions to the atmosphere is equivalent to nearly half a million tons each year. TRSDC’s ambition to deliver a tourist destination that limits the environmental impact through the provision of zero-carbon emitting and zero-waste generating utility services truly sets news standards in regenerative tourism.


I was also reading that you’re committed to delivering a 30% net conservation benefit over the next two decades. The amazing biodiversity attracts tourism, and tourism in turn supports and gives back to the environment. In what ways are you working to ensure that your luxury tourism offering delivers positive returns for the local environment?


Technology is a crucial part of how we bring The Red Sea Project to life whilst ensuring we protect the delicate marine and terrestrial ecosystems. From the innovative construction methods we utilize, to more experimental technologies that help us enhance our sustainability, we want to ensure we give back to the environment, and are carrying out a number of initiatives to do this.

For instance, we are exploring tech-equipped carbon sequestration techniques like micro-algae farming and creating mechanical tree forests. We are also planning to invest in autonomous and electric vehicles as part of our smart and sustainable mobility strategy to further reduce our carbon footprint. Other efforts include a project, again with KAUST, to implement a turtle-tagging program in order to track and trace the endangered Hawksbill sea turtles that inhabit the region – allowing us to gather valuable data that will inform future conservation efforts.

With sea temperatures rising faster than ever and the majority of the world’s coral reefs predicted to die out by the end of this century, protecting the Red Sea region’s expansive coral populations is essential. With that being said, The Red Sea Project sits alongside one of the last truly healthy coral reef eco-systems in the world, and it is vital we keep it that way. Through partnerships with cutting edge scientists, The Red Sea Project is developing new technologies to actively aid the recovery of coral colonies that are part of the destination. The team are currently carrying out exciting work on 3D coral printing and farming techniques to restore and enhance the coral reefs onsite.


Is there a single sustainable innovation that you’re most excited by?

 

One very exciting effort is the ongoing research for enhancing coral reefs, which includes the creation of multiple coral nurseries to interbreed corals with different degrees of tolerance for temperature. If widely successful it could become a stellar example of regenerative tourism where we make the leap from just talking about saving the corals to aim bolder and grow them instead!

 

At City Nation Place, we often speak about the importance of a holistic approach to your sustainability, and ensuring that  tourism delivers benefits equally across the wider community – and to ensure that any burdens are similarly shared. Is this a focus for your own strategy?


Absolutely. TRSDC is setting new standards in sustainable development and regenerative tourism not only in terms of environmental enhancement but also the socio-economic impact the project will have.

Supporting the local communities as well as the wider economy is a core focus for TRSDC. As a key pillar of Saudi’s Vision 2030, the project is already delivering economic benefits to the Kingdom. By encouraging the growth of unexplored industries, from engineering and construction through to hospitality and leisure, it is predicted that the destination will create 70,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs, and contribute SAR 22 billion per annum to the GDP each year once fully operational.

Members of the local communities in the region are already working onsite, with 45 individuals from both Umluj and Al Wajh working at the 100-hectare on-site, fully functioning landscaping nursery for example. Half of all staff hired so far are Saudi with gender diversity and inclusion as a central decision making criteria because in order to be successful we need not only all the males in the Kingdom but also the females to be actively involved in making the vision a reality. We are also committed to facilitating a new intake of hospitality talent through our Elite Graduate Program. Since its introduction, we have hired 31 bright, young Saudis for on the job training at our headquarters in departments such as marketing, environmental sustainability and business development.

 

Vision 2030 is Saudi Arabia’s ambitious project for the future. How does this regeneration project tie into this broader strategy?


Tourism is a strategic growth industry for Saudi Arabia and a significant contributor to helping realize its wider Vision 2030 strategic goals. It is a creator of jobs, a driver of economic growth, and an essential bridge between cultures that fosters a greater understanding and appreciation of this unique and intriguing nation.

Saudi’s tourism contribution to the economy is currently underrepresented by approximately 3.4%. Vision 2030’s central axel is the diversification of the Saudi economy, with tourism as the main driver. The government is targeting 100 million foreign tourists annually by 2030.

At The Red Sea Development Company, there is a long-term vision for the company’s role in the sector. The company represents the vision and boldness of KSA in becoming a global leader in the industry.

 

Are there any other sustainable tourism initiatives that you’ve been inspired by?

 

There is a paradigm shift in luxury tourism globally and it is increasingly becoming about experiences and authenticity. This is why The Red Sea Project will limit the number of people visiting the islands. The ultra-luxury segment will naturally support this but we also are very clear that we don’t want to create another fantasy land - we want a place that embraces the natural environment and has a genuine sense of place with authentic culture and heritage where the local community is engaged as active participants and co-creators.

We also hope to inspire the world of tourism to change its metrics of measuring success. All too often we only hear the economic lexicon of how many millions of visitors or billions of international receipts - but really, we need a holistic measure that gives just as much importance to natural capital and social capital.

 

The work you’re doing is fantastic, but it does come with a price tag. What would be your advice to smaller destinations looking to be regenerative with their tourism strategy?


Put people first. The tourism industry is made up of private and public stakeholders, community members, and experts in certain fields who will all be directly and indirectly making a difference to your project.

Only through cooperation can we build a more sustainable future. We see investment as, above all, a partnership. As work on the destination continues to progress, all of our conversations around investing centre on partnerships. Focusing on your partners and bringing in experts from around the world will be key to building a regenerative tourism strategy.

Strong leadership, effective teamwork and robust stakeholder relationships will take you a long way. However, no matter how thorough a project is planned or how strong your partnerships and workforce is there will always be challenges and problems. Any project plan, therefore, must take into account contingencies for when the unexpected happens, which it will!


And finally, I wonder if you have insights on how we can work more broadly to be sustainable? To not just have excellent strategies yourself, but to encourage better and more sustainable consumption habits more widely?


The pandemic has had an unprecedented effect on all of us around the world. But COVID-19 has taught us the importance of flexibility and how this can be achieved if we work together. Sustainability is now a key focus for nearly every single business around the world. It has to be, not only for the reputation of businesses, but for their own survival. We all need to adapt, innovate, educate and grow to make more sustainable choices and we as individuals need to accept that we have a role to play because how and where you travel is a vote of your wallet but also of your values and we are all  dependent on the health of the nature, culture and history of the places we  visit. 

There is so much we can do to be more sustainable and encourage others to have better consumption habits. The list is endless; going plastic free, driving less or driving green, being water wise, boycotting products that endanger wildlife and paying better attention to labels are just some of the things we can all do as we look towards a greener future.

For us at TRSDC, engaging the international scientific community on this journey has been extremely rewarding. We have only reached where we are today by partnering and learning from the top experts around the world. We’re currently working with some of the world’s brightest minds to come up with solutions to some of the region’s most pressing environmental problems.

For instance, in 2019 The Red Sea Project partnered with KAUST to create the Brains for Brine initiative, to encourage innovative solutions to the brine problem resulting from the water desalination process – a major problem for development in the Middle East. Following a competition attracting 125 entries from across the world, we’re working with challenge winners to develop potential solutions to one of the world’s most confounding environmental challenges.

With all of this the challenge is as huge as the opportunity. Because the job is really only done when we can share the learnings with the world and make it scalable and inexpensive enough for the entire world to emulate.


Amazing, thank you for sharing that with us.


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