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Saudi Arabia Fosters Sustainable, Regenerative Tourism Along the Red Sea

by Richard Newton

Jun 21, 2024

PHOTO: © EMILY WILSON | DREAMSTIME.COM

June 2024

 My first experience of Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast now seems like ancient history. It was 1995, and I was visiting my ornithologist cousin and is wife. Getting into the kingdom wasn’t easy; I needed sponsorship letters. and a pre-trip interview at the Saudi Arabian Embassy. When I arrived in the country, there was no tourist infrastructure. We toured by SUV ad often slept under the stars. Thus, one morning, we woke up on roll-out mattresses on a Red Sea beach 200 miles from Jeddah.

Daylight revealed startingly turquoise waves rolling onto pristine sand. We thought we were alone, but almost immediately we heard voices. Coming along the beach were two fishermen bearing their overnight catch on poles slung over their shoulders. We spoke little Arabic and they spoke no English, but we invited them to join us for morning tea. In return, they gave us several fish to grill on an improvised barbecue. Possibly the best breakfast of my life.

PHOTOS: SIX SENSES SOUTHERN DUNES

Now dial forward three decades. Saudi Arabia is one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations in the world, personified by the Red Sea Project. In the once-neglected Tabuk Region, encompassing the northern stretch of Saudi Arabia’s 1,100-mile Red Sea coastline, an ambitious scheme is transforming mainland beaches and 90 offshore islands into a major tourist center. The first resorts have already opened, and in 2023 Red Sea International Airport began operations. It expects to handle 1 million passengers per year by 2030.

The project aims to be sustainable, utilizing 100 percent renewable energy, largely solar, stored in the world’s largest battery storage facility. Desalination plants will supply fresh water, and wastewater will give rise to new wetland habitats. Sustainability has long been a tourism buzzword, but Saudi Arabia will go a step further, adopting the concept of regenerative tourism.

Before breaking ground on the initial building phase, the project began efforts to regenerate marine and coastal habitats depleted by overfishing, pollution, destruction of
coral reefs and climate change. Development plans were modified to accommodate these efforts, aiming to protect 75 percent of the 90 islands from development. The island of Waqqadi, which boasts white-sand beaches and crystal-clear waters, was earmarked for a grand resort, but researchers identified it as a crucial breeding ground for hawksbill turtles. The proposed resort was dropped.

© ST. REGIS RED SEA RESORT

The Red Sea, which separates Africa from the Arabian Peninsula, comprises one of the world’s biodiversity hot spots, with 1,120 species of fish, 14 percent of which exist nowhere else. The water is warm, with a high level of salinity and weak currents, resulting in excellent underwater visibility. It has long been acknowledged as a world-class diving location though, until now, the main dive sites have been located in the Gulf of Aqaba, off Egypt, Jordan and Israel, largely neglecting Saudi Arabia’s potential.

That will change within the next five years with the opening of 50 hotels offering a combined total of 8,000 rooms. Diving, watersports and idyllic beaches will be the headline attractions, but the coastal development will also provide access to the remarkable oasis town of AlUla, 150 miles inland. This UNESCO World Heritage
site — a human settlement for more than 7,000 years — features a complex of Nabatean tombs ornately carved into sandstone outcrops. These ancient wonders are complemented by Maraya, a new 500-seat concert hall constructed with mirrored outer walls to provide mirage-like reflections of the desert surroundings.

Both the Red Sea Project and AlUla are part of Saudi Vision 2030, a trillion-dollar package of developments aimed at diversifying the country’s economy. The headline project, The Line, was originally conceived as a 110-mile-long glass-walled city for 9 million people, stretching from the Red Sea into the desert. The scheme has recently been scaled back, though even at the revised 1.5-mile length it will still resemble a structure straight out of sci-fi.

As attention-grabbing as these developments are, there will always be those of us who reserve a place on our bucket list for simpler experiences. For instance, sitting on a Red Sea beach far from any town, sharing a breakfast of fresh fish with the two local fishermen who caught them.

INFO TO GO

Domestic and international flights arrive at Red Sea International Airport, 11 miles inland. For now, it only services flights from Riyadh, Jeddah and Dubai, though it expects to add many more destinations in the near future. U.S. citizens require a visa to enter Saudi Arabia, which can be bought online or on arrival. (Currently, a single- entry, 30-day visa costs $117.)

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