Red Sea project could provide a new blueprint for tracking sustainability

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Jeri Clausing
Jeri Clausing

Saudi Arabia has finalized its master plan for creating a massive luxury ecotourism destination in the Red Sea and is looking for investors.

And while the Red Sea Project isn't likely to propel Saudi Arabia to the top of many Western travelers must-see list any time soon, it does offer some innovative models for the industry in terms of developing and managing sustainable resorts.

The master plan, which calls for development of more than 10,000 hotel rooms, luxury housing, yacht marinas and other recreational and commercial facilities across some two dozen islands in a previously untouched marine sanctuary, is underpinned by what officials described in a press release as "an extensive smart destination management system."

In addition to supporting all the modern luxury goals like hyper-personalized services, the system will employ what The Red Sea Development Company describes as the "first destination-scale computer simulation techniques," created in Saudi Arabia to assess the impact of development and future tourism on the environment.

The system, the group said, will manage visitor flows to prevent the crowds and delays increasingly associated with overtourism and, it will use a suite of sensors and monitoring devices to track and measure variations in environmental factors such as water salinity, temperature, visibility and tidal flows.

The company also said it is developing a range of policies, including zero waste-to-landfill, zero discharge to the sea, and no single-use plastics, and it has made a commitment to achieve 100% carbon neutrality. And the destination will rely solely on renewable energy and have no connection to the national grid.

The resulting plan has a target of achieving a 30% net increase in biodiversity over the next two decades, which the development company says amounts to a conservation outcome equivalent to designating the site as a Marine Protected Area.

"The leadership of the Kingdom has shown great foresight in its insistence on balanced development of this pristine destination," said CEO John Pagano. "Our plan not only envisions a stunning luxury destination, it also takes tangible, measurable steps to enhance that destination for future generations to enjoy and cherish."

The plan was being developed in conjunction with a board of advisers that read like virtual who's who of leaders in hospitality and conservation. It's unclear, however, how many remain active with the project. Richard Branson, one of the project's early cheerleaders, and Steve Case suspended their advisory roles after the killing last year of Saudi dissident and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi.

Still, the politics of Saudi Arabia aside, the project's development promises to be an interesting one to watch.

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