How Saudi Arabia Is Leading the Way for Regenerative Tourism

  • A development organization in Saudi Arabia is changing perceptions of how regenerative tourism can work.
  • From planting millions of trees to protecting endangered turtle species, these projects will protect and improve the local environments.
  • The creation of thousands of jobs in the community is accompanied by dedicated training and development programs for young Saudis.

When John Pagano arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2018, the country subverted his expectations. “We all paint a picture in our minds of what the Middle East is about,” he said. “I found a pristine environment, an archipelago of 90 beautiful islands, and turquoise-colored water. It was truly remarkable.”

Pagano, who is Canadian, was moving to the Kingdom to take up a role as chief executive officer of Red Sea Global (RSG), a major new developer of ambitious regenerative tourism destinations. Pagano, an engineer by training, has had a long career working on large-scale real estate projects, including the Canary Wharf development in London and the Baha Mar project in the Bahamas. But this was unlike anything he had done before in its sheer scale. “I was persuaded by His Royal Highness and his vision for transforming the country,” he said. “I had the opportunity to be part of it.”

As construction progresses, change is in the air

Progress has been rapid. When Pagano joined RSG six years ago, he was the company’s 15th employee. Today, RSG employs around 5,000 people. RSG’s portfolio includes two coastal destinations: The Red Sea and AMAALA. The first resorts at The Red Sea are already open, with luxury hospitality brands Six Senses and St Regis already welcoming guest, with the Ritz-Carlton Reserve joining imminently. By 2030 the destination will be home to 50 hotels, 8,000 rooms and up to 1,000 residential properties, as well as entertainment and leisure facilities. AMAALA, meanwhile, will be home to more than 3,900 hotel rooms across 29 hotels, and 1,200 luxury residential homes, alongside high-end retail establishments, fine dining, and wellness facilities. A third destination, Thuwal Private Retreat, is a buy-out-only resort set to open this year.

Given how remote the three sites are, construction involves building wider infrastructure around the destinations: airports, roads, villages for workers to live in. All of this is done with the company’s regenerative ethos in mind: the airport, for instance, aims to be the first in the Middle East to be fully carbon-neutral. “Historically, companies in the region do large-scale developments using third parties,” Pagano said. He took a different course: Building a vertically-integrated real estate company to deliver The Red Sea.

Central to RSG’s work is the idea of regenerative tourism, which seeks to actively improve the local environment and economy, rather than simply avoiding harm, and to involve local communities in decision making. “Sustainability is about maintaining the status quo, and we’re past that that particular point — the world is facing an environmental and ecological crisis,” Pagano said. The Red Sea will be the largest destination in the world powered exclusively by renewable energy, 24 hours a day, and RSG has already installed all 760,000 panels needed to power phase one of the destination by sunlight, day and night.

Umbrellas provide shade

The Oasis at Red Sea Global


In fact, RSG plans a 30% net conservation benefit by 2040, an aim which will be achieved by enhancing the area’s habitats. To this end, the company plans to grow 50 million mangrove trees — 1 million of which have already been planted by RSG —  to protect against erosion and sequester carbon effectively. Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast is home to one of the world’s few thriving coral reefs, but rather than simply trying to protect what is there, in partnership with King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), RSG is working on coral regrowth. “We’re not complacent — corals are under serious threat from climate change, and we want to build resilience and abundance,” Pagano said. 

Also working with KAUST, the company has conducted a marine spatial exercise on the local environment, and used this to determine which islands in the archipelago would be developed. One island, which appeared perfect for development, was found to be a nesting environment for the critically endangered Hawksbill Sea Turtle. “Our decision was that the sea turtles were there first, and they get to stay,” Pagano said.

Embedding opportunity at the heart of the development

A central plank of regenerative tourism is growing local economies, and RSG is focused on fostering Saudi talent. Across its two larger destinations, The Red Sea and AMAALA, RSG is creating 120,000 new jobs, directly and indirectly. The Elite Graduate Program, which launched in 2020, is particularly close to Pagano’s heart. “I’ve been really fortunate in my career to work on these large transformational projects, each of which was life-changing for me, and I wanted to give that same opportunity to young Saudis.”

Graduates — 250 so far — learn on the job and move around different departments. Of these, 30 have advanced to management-level positions and 70 have joined a leadership development program. In addition, RSG has awarded 170 scholarships to study Hospitality at the University of Prince Mugrin, provided internships and vocational training to 800 Saudis, and cofounded a farmer’s co-op to improve income for local farmers.

RSG also runs a large-scale vocational training program, which works to upskill young Saudis across the spectrum of tourism jobs, from hospitality, to renewable energy and airport security, and guarantees jobs either directly with RSG or with its partners. Around 70% of the total value of contracts awarded by RSG has gone to Saudi-registered vendors. “We’re making sure that [local communities] benefit,” Pagano said.

This ambition supports Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 strategy, which aims to diversify the country’s economy and foster global engagement. Tourism has already shot up as a share of the Kingdom’s GDP, from 3% in 2018 to 7% today. Previously, almost all Saudi Arabia’s tourists were visiting religious sites. Destinations like The Red Sea and AMAALA aim to build a broader, more leisure-focused tourism sector.

Pagano wants others to experience the pleasant surprise he did experiencing the country for the first time. “Tourism is a bridge between cultures, and it’s going to give the world a better appreciation of what Saudi Arabia is,” he said. “We’re helping the Kingdom open its doors to the wider world.”

Learn more about regenerative tourism.

This article was created by Insider Studios with Red Sea Global.

Read More: How Saudi Arabia Is Leading the Way for Regenerative Tourism

2024-04-03 10:27:00

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