To many, the idea of building a world-class tourism destination in the middle of the desert may sound like the work of fiction. However, Saudi Arabian developer, The Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC) has set out to do just that.

John Pagano CEO TRSDCLocated on Saudi Arabia’s west coast, TRSDC is building the world’s most sustainable luxury tourist destination, The Red Sea Project, the first phase of which is scheduled to open in 2022. The destination is set to place Saudi Arabia on the global tourism map, by creating a luxury tourism destination that’s built around the region’s natural assets, specifically its islands, nature, and culture.

Blooloop spoke to John Pagano, CEO of The Red Sea Development Company to learn more about this world-class destination. He also spoke about how the company’s uncompromising search for luxury has sustainability and conservation at its core.

Tourism in Saudi Arabia and Vision 2030

The Red Sea Project is one of the country’s giga-projects, a series of large-scale infrastructure projects, which form part of the government’s ambitions to transform the socio-economic landscape of the nation. This ambition, known as Vision 2030, identifies tourism as a strategic growth area for the Kingdom, and it’s clear why:

“The hospitality industry in Saudi Arabia is a significant creator of jobs. It is also a driver of economic growth and an essential bridge between cultures. It helps to foster a greater understanding and appreciation of this unique and intriguing nation” says Pagano.

corals Red Sea Project

The Project itself is a significant contributor to helping realize Saudi Arabia’s wider Vision 2030 plan. “The Project brings together luxury, culture and sustainability, all in one of the world’s last natural hidden treasures on The Red Sea in Saudi Arabia,” he says.

Pagano is no stranger to building ambitious projects. He previously worked on a major tourism destination in the Bahamas and spent 23 years at the world-renowned Canary Wharf development in London. The Red Sea Project, however, poses a slightly different challenge to projects he has worked on previously: “We are creating a unique luxury and environmentally sustainable international tourism destination.”

Saudi Arabia’s giga-projects

The Red Sea Development Company was established in 2018 and is owned by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. It is responsible for the development of The Red Sea Project, which is one of several giga-projects announced by HRH Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud in 2017.

The Public Investment Fund (PIF) is a sovereign wealth fund owned by Saudi Arabia and is one of twelve vision realisation programmes in Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030. This encompasses three pillars: a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation.

The giga-projects are intended to establish new areas of economic activity, create jobs, cultivate entrepreneurial activity and drive economic development. Other giga-projects underway also include the Qiddiya entertainment destination, a mega-city called NEOM and Amaala, a super-luxury wellbeing resort.

About the Red Sea Project

The Red Sea Project will be an ultra-luxury destination, located within a pristine 28,000 km² area. Once complete, visitors will be able to experience a ride range of activities. There will be something for nature lovers, outdoor adventurers, cultural explorers, wellness seekers and more.

This 200-kilometre stretch of coastline is home to over 90 islands. 75 per cent of these will remain undeveloped and nine have been designated as areas of special conservation interest. There are dormant volcanoes, unspoiled marine habitats and ancient archaeological sites to be explored, as well as beaches, canyons, mountains and mangroves.

Here, the average summer temperature is 32 degrees and the region enjoys 360 days of sunshine, making it a year-round destination. Guests can dive on the world’s fourth-largest barrier reef system, where they will encounter corals and several endangered species. In addition to this, the islands will also support a variety of carefully monitored water sports activities.

From vision to reality

Work on the Red Sea Project, which was announced at the end of July 2017, is already underway. Now, the destination is on track to welcome its first guests in December 2022. “We have seen great progress over the past year alone. This is in everything from construction, connectivity and the development of the site’s ecosystem” says Pagano.

To date, the company has signed over 380 contracts. It has also committed more than SAR 5.3 billion towards the development of the destination. Work has already begun across a range of the Red Sea Project’s central elements including the development of 77km of roads, highways and junctions that will connect the destination.

A village for construction workers is also under construction, which will accommodate 10,000 workers on site.

Connected with the world

Central to the destination is the construction of its own airport, designed by world-renowned architects Foster + Partners. Pagano says the airport is in keeping with the destination and will “provide a unique luxury airport experience like no other”.

Once complete, the airport will connect 80% of the world’s population to The Red Sea Project within just an 8-hour flight. It will also have the capacity to process up to one million visitors per year. Ideally located for visitors from Europe, Asia and Africa, 250 million people will be within three hours flying time of the new resort.

airport red sea project

Attracting hotel partners has also been another key focus for Pagano and his team:

“We are making preparations for sixteen luxury hotels. These will welcome visitors in its first opening phase at the end of 2022. Developments like this are paving the way towards the Red Sea Project’s completion in 2030. When complete, the destination will have 50 hotels across 22 developed islands and 6 inland sites.”

Meeting the needs of experience-seekers

Until now, much of Saudi Arabia’s tourism industry has been focused largely on religious tourists. However, The Red Sea Project is looking to attract a new kind of tourist. The target audience is discerning travellers from across the world, who are looking to visit the Kingdom for the first time.

With that in mind, the team are developing the destination to meet the needs of these new ‘experience-seekers’.

“As the travel sector expands, we’re seeing a change in what customers expect,” says Pagano. “Demand for luxury travel is growing. And discerning travellers are now looking for holidays that offer more than comfort and service.”

A hawksbill turtle at the Red Sea Project

“They want to visit authentic destinations. Travellers are looking for interesting experiences, cultural exploration and ‘guilt-free’ sustainable travel.”

The Red Sea Project is responding to these changing demands by delivering this new kind of luxury travel.

“We will be providing visitors with a constellation of unique experiences, all within an integrated destination. From scuba diving amongst untouched coral reefs to sailing around the archipelago of islands. Visitors can also explore the mountains and canyons or get off the beaten track with journeys over desert dunes.”

A bespoke approach at the Red Sea Project

Personalisation and creating a bespoke offering for this new kind of tourism is an important part of the creation of this new destination:

“There are few places in the world with this diversity and scope. At the end of a long day of adventuring, guests can also relax and enjoy some luxury. As a result of the Red Sea Project, they will be able to enjoy the array of world-class amenities on our island resorts or inland resorts. Everything will meet the highest standards of personal service. The resort will offer a seamless and personalised experience” says Pagano.

 

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“Delivering a truly authentic experience of the region is a priority. Many of our international visitors will be exploring Saudi Arabia for the first time. So, they will be looking to experience the country’s rich historic and cultural heritage. Here, they will be able to learn from local experts on personalized tours and also visit the region’s breath-taking ancient archaeological sites.

“Modern luxury travel is now about being able to take in the true sense of a destination.”

Smart technology will also deliver tailored services for visitors, from when they begin to plan their trip to their return home.

Culture and heritage

The region itself has a rich history, home to trading routes that date back to the Nabatean civilization. It was also part of the Incense Trail and the maritime spice route. Plus the site itself is on a historic pilgrimage route from Egypt to the Holy Cities of Makkah and Madinah.

Red Sea Project bridge

Guests at this new destination will have the choice of a range of interesting nearby excursions. For instance, they will be able to explore the Nabatean City of Mada’in Saleh, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

They will also be able to discover the warm hospitality of the Saudi Arabian people, learning about their culture and lifestyle, exploring their art and craftsmanship while enjoying their culinary expertise.

Delivering on sustainability

The Red Sea Project is located within one of the world’s most beautiful natural environments. This is a responsibility which Pagano and his team take seriously.

“We’re taking a sustainable approach to development. From project planning and the materials we use in construction, through to destination and tourism management. In fact, the initiatives we’re putting in place across the Project align with the 17 United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

coral reefs TRSDC

His team are planning to not only avoid harming the environment but to also positively contribute to it. TRSDC has an ambitious aim of making a 30 per cent net improvement to the area’s conservation value. To achieve this, they are leaving no stone unturned.

“We’re looking at everything from committing to achieve carbon neutrality to managing visitor numbers to avoid over-tourism. We’re finding new ways to reduce the environmental impact of running the destination. And we have the ultimate goal of actively enhancing it,” says Pagano.

Dark Sky accreditation at the Red Sea Project

The focus on sustainability is at the heart of the Red Sea Project’s vision. From neutralizing its carbon emissions, to running on 100 per cent renewable energy, there is an uncompromising commitment to preserving the natural environment.

Some initiatives travellers will be aware of, such as the ban on single-use plastics at the destination. However, a lot of these measures, including the modular construction methods that will be deployed, will go unnoticed.

Mono island concept

Reducing the impact on nature is also a key driver for Pagano and the Red Sea Project team. The project has a goal of achieving Dark Sky accreditation at the site.

In doing so, the team will work with Cundall, an international multi-disciplinary consultancy, to develop a lighting strategy. This aims to protect the destination’s nocturnal environment from human activity. “It will allow us to both protect the area’s wildlife and deliver an authentic experience to our guests,” says Pagano.

Providing for the local community

Not only is the Red Sea Project looking to improve nature conservation at the site, but it is also looking to support the local communities nearby.  Saudi Arabia is currently transitioning away from its reliance on oil. Therefore, it is more important than ever for the project to be a catalyst for job creation.

“We’re exploring how we can ensure that our destination works for local communities,” says Pagano. “And for all Saudis. We’re working to bolster the country’s burgeoning hospitality industry and help the growth of new industries. These sectors, like construction and engineering, will provide the jobs of the future.”

Red Sea Project tree

The Red Sea Project is expected to be completed in 2030. By this time, it is anticipated that it will support 35,000 jobs directly and another 35,000 jobs indirectly. This represents a significant contribution to employment nationally.

Travel in a post-COVID era

There is no doubt that anyone responsible for a tourism destination of this scale would be worried about the impact the COVID-19 crisis has had on the sector. However, Pagano remains focused on the task at hand. The Red Sea Project team is committed to continuing the progress that has been made at the site.

Sheybarah Red Sea Project

“Business continuity planning is also a significant focus for us. The company wants to ensure that we deliver our long-term commitments and responsibilities. We are continuing to work effectively through considered, smart planning. We are working to reduce any potential impact on the progress of the development.”