Covid-19 brought tourism to a complete standstill. Yet the sector is ideally positioned to lead the world toward recovery, with the United Nations working closely with international organizations, governments and the private sector to support the responsible and timely recovery of the industry, which millions of small businesses and jobs depend. At the recent United Nations World Tourism Organization’s Tourism Recovery Summit, John Pagano, Chief Executive Officer for both The Red Sea Development Company and AMAALA, spoke about his hopes for the future and how the tourism sector needs to care not only for people, but for the environment.
Addressing the Summit, Pagano began: “The Red Sea Project and AMAALA are two of the flagship Vision 2030 projects, delivering Saudi Arabia’s ambition for a diversified economy, and creating a new tourism industry. As the CEO of these two projects, how we as an industry respond to global challenges is a subject that is very close to my heart.
“Tourism has been one of the sectors that has suffered the most from the pandemic. But as we recover, the Great Reset offers us an opportunity to make different decisions centred on our natural capital. Today I am here to share how responsible tourism can be a central part of our sector’s recovery. If you’ll allow me, I’d like to read out an element of the UNWTO’s definition of sustainable tourism: Make optimal use of environmental resources that constitute a key element in tourism development, maintaining essential ecological processes and helping to conserve natural heritage and biodiversity. However, I think we can, and must, do better than this.”
“Eventually The Red Sea Project and AMAALA will employ around 60,000 people directly, as well as creating a further 60,000 induced and indirect jobs”
He went onto explaining how this means more than ‘making optimal use’ of resources or ‘maintaining’ or ‘conserving’ the status quo. Instead, we should give back to the environment; we should enhance biodiversity; we should encourage the flourishing of habitats and wildlife; this in turn will lift up surrounding communities and grow local economies.
“Today I want to call on the industry to do better by aiming for regenerative tourism,” Pagano continued. “After decades of exploiting our ecosystems for commercial gain, our environment is depleted in both abundance and in health. Conserving environments that are already in this weakened state is no longer an option, for any of us.
“Yet, all too often, we see tourism destinations developed or operated that don’t take account of the fragile environment and which fail to recognise the relationship this has with society and the economy. While this may be profitable in the short-term, ultimately, in the long term, it is a failing strategy. The environment is our most important and valuable asset and we must do everything to protect it. We must do things differently.
“Happily, I can report that over 70% of the total combined value of contracts awarded to date, on both the Red Sea and AMAALA projects, have been awarded to Saudi companies”
Pagano makes clear how regenerative tourism is a raising of the industry’s ambitions. It is the goal of restoring ecosystems, and along with it generating economic development and improving livelihoods for the long term. He then gave three reasons why the tourism sector should care and why everyone should stand together on this issue.
- Because pre-pandemic, our sector contributed more than 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Unless we act, by 2030 our emissions will have grown 25% compared with 2016 levels.
- Traveler expectations are changing. The 2020s will be a transformative decade, with the impact of Covid-19, technological advancements and the rise of sustainable tourism shifting what people want when they travel. More than half (53%) of global holidaymakers already say they want to travel more sustainably – and this demand will only grow.
- The reason the tourism sector needs to stand up on this issue, is because it is the right thing to do.
“I believe that The Red Sea Project is the most ambitious regenerative tourism project in the world today,” he continued. “Being developed over 28,000 km2 of pristine lands and waters along Saudi Arabia’s west coast, it includes a vast archipelago of more than 90 pristine islands with thriving coral reefs, as well as sweeping desert dunes, mountains and canyons, dormant volcanoes, and ancient cultural and heritage sites.
“When I first visited the Red Sea coast, I was truly taken by its breathtaking beauty. Developing in this pristine and untouched environment is a serious responsibility. That is why we aim to protect and enhance this region through both the construction phase and when in operation. That ambition is a founding principle of The Red Sea Development Company and is central to who we are, and what we do.”
Indeed, during the early planning stages, a lot of time was spent researching the carefully balanced ecosystems. “We carried out the most comprehensive marine spatial planning simulation ever undertaken. This allowed us to identify the ecological ceiling for the destination including the number of guests our destination could safely accommodate without damaging the environment. As a result, we will implement a cap of no more than one million visitors each year.
More than half (53%) of global holidaymakers already say they want to travel more sustainably – and this demand will only grow.
“We also made the decision early on to leave 75% of the destination’s 90-plus islands untouched. This includes one of my favourite islands Al Waqadi, which would have made a perfect resort location. But when our assessment revealed it was a favourite nesting ground for the critically endangered Hawksbill turtle, there was no question that it had to be protected. So despite the commercial attractiveness of the island we chose not to develop it, putting the Hawksbill sea turtle ahead of profit. In total, less than 1% of the entire area will be developed. This is not the most profitable approach, but it is the right choice for the three reasons I outlined a moment ago,” Pagano said.
Going beyond initial planning work, every decision taken at The Red Sea and AMAALA is grounded in sustainability. From choosing innovative construction methods and materials to implementing smart destination technology, everything is done in the service of delivering a 30% net conservation benefit by 2040.
“Regeneration is not just for the planet, but for people too. The environment and economy are interdependent in a virtuous circle. I subscribe to the belief that if we enhance one, we improve the other. We protect the ecosystem for the long term, and in turn we grow the economy and create lasting jobs. To ensure we build these unique destinations to the highest standards and deliver on our sustainability commitments, it is vital we bring in the best talent, both from within Saudi Arabia and further afield,” Pagano clarified.
“However, this is coupled with a long-term view of enabling knowledge transfer within the nation. We are focused on training and developing local talent. I’m proud to say over 50% of our employees are Saudi. This is more than double the national average. Eventually The Red Sea Project and AMAALA will employ around 60,000 people directly, as well as creating a further 60,000 induced and indirect jobs.
“From choosing innovative construction methods and materials to implementing smart destination technology, everything is done in the service of delivering a 30% net conservation benefit by 2040”
“It is important to us that the jobs we create contribute to the country’s economic fortunes. Happily, I can report that over 70% of the total combined value of contracts awarded to date, on both the Red Sea and AMAALA projects, have been awarded to Saudi companies.
We are bringing opportunities to local businesses and to the Saudi people. This is key to creating a strong and viable economy.”
Pagano points out, though, that the progress being made is far more than just numbers and statistics: “Our mission is to become a world-leading tourist destination that delivers growth for the Saudi economy and for the Saudi people, while also instilling pride in the Kingdom. It is also to lead the global transition towards regenerative development, leading by example and setting new standards that we genuinely hope others will follow.
“Saudi Arabia’s rich heritage and traditions are a valuable asset for the Kingdom’s proposition to international tourists. Saudi culture has been influenced and enriched by Bedouin traditions and Islamic heritage. It has been shaped by its historical role as the crossroads of the world, serving as a vital link between India and East Asia on one side, and Byzantium and the Mediterranean on the other. Destinations like Al Ula and Diriyah Gate are unique around the world – they are untouched samples of ancient history that contribute to the Saudi national identity.”
The Red Sea and AMAALA will be gateways for visitors to discover these wonderful examples of ancient history, as well as the country’s breathtaking landscapes, year-long summer temperatures and wider cultural wealth. “They are also a key part of Saudi Arabia’s own transformation, reducing the Kingdom’s reliance on oil and setting the framework for a diversified economy; creating new industries, and new opportunities.
“This year’s Earth Day highlighted the need for change under the theme ‘Restore Our Earth’. It called for society to not only reduce its impact, but to repair the damage we’ve done. Tourism should be part of this ambition.
“That’s why I’m proud to be leading the global transition towards regenerative tourism, and why I’m honoured to be speaking to you here at the Tourism Recovery Summit today. As our sector rebuilds, we have an opportunity to show how responsible tourism can uplift communities and drive economies, while enhancing the environment and celebrating local cultures.
“By creating a world-leading destination that allows people to satisfy their thirst for travel, while also allowing them to have a positive impact, I believe we offer a tantalizing proposition for today’s travelers: a commitment to do better than maintain and conserve – to seek to improve, enhance and regenerate,” Pagano concluded.