Inside Saudi’s Red Sea Project: First look as mega tourism destination gears to open

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Six years in the making, the first phase of Saudi Arabia’s mega Red Sea project is months away from opening. With three ultra-luxurious hotels soon slated to open, the CEO of the company behind the mega tourism project says he believes every hotel room will “sell out” this year as Saudis and international visitors flock to the sustainable luxury destination.

In 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman unveiled plans for three giga-projects – one of which was the Red Sea Project, a vast 28,000 square-kilometer tourism destination along the Kingdom’s west coast.

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Luxury hotels to open in 2023

Mountains at Saudi's Red Sea Project (Supplied)
Mountains at Saudi's Red Sea Project (Supplied)

Fast track to 2023. The first hotels – the St. Regis Red Sea Resort, Nujuma Ritz Carlton Reserve, and Six Senses Southern Dunes – have been built, the destination’s dedicated airport is ready to launch its inaugural flight and the Kingdom is undergoing a mass recruitment and training drive to fill the thousands of jobs at the multibillion-dollar project.

Red Sea Global is a closed joint-stock company wholly owned by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF). It is a cornerstone of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 ambition to diversify its economy by sustainably developing the Red Sea region.

Speaking to Al Arabiya English, John Pagano, CEO of Red Sea Global, said the first of these luxury hotels could be open as early as the summer. All three hotels will open by the end of 2023, followed by another 13 hotels next year.

Once completed, the Red Sea Project will have about 50 hotels, with more than 8,000 hotel rooms.

It is a vast project, said Pagano, who admitted Red Sea Global had to start the Kingdom’s lofty tourism plans from scratch.

“It is a very ambitious project,” he said. “But let me put that put the (number of) rooms into context; this is a country of over 30 million people. And leisure tourism has been nonexistent until very recently.”

He continued, “So, we started from zero in terms of competition. So, while it is a lot in terms of keys (hotel rooms), there has been no competition and plenty of demand there to support this level of development.”

The first hotels to open were chosen on their ultra-high-end appeal, according to Pagano.

St Regis Red Sea (Supplied)
St Regis Red Sea (Supplied)

The Six Senses Southern Dunes will feature 76 keys, and the St. Regis Red Sea Resort - situated on a private island, is expected to feature 90 villas. On the Ummahat islands, the luxury Nujuma Ritz-Carlton Reserve will have 82 keys, including overwater and beach villas.

“When it comes to the Ritz Carlton, there are only a few ‘Ritz Carlton Reserves’ in the world,” said Pagano. “So, it’s a distinction that they only apply to the most special properties and we’re very happy that they will be opening in the Red Sea. We are not in the process now of handing those properties over to the operating companies. So, I think the first one [will] start in June or July time and then between August and October, the others will follow.”

Pagano says he predicts the hotels will sell out.

“I think the demand is going to far outstrip the supply. This year, we are only opening up three hotels with something like only 250 rooms between all three properties. These are hyper luxury, and there is so much anticipation. So, I think we sell out for a few months,” he told Al Arabiya English.

According to Pagano, 2023 is a “very special moment” for the Red Sea Project.

“It is a realization of our dream and vision. We built the organization [Red Sea Global], we work very hard to develop and develop the plans and the ideas and design them, then start to construct them and now bringing them to fruition is satisfying. Especially, doing this with the backdrop of COVID-19 and consequent supply chain disruptions, but yet, we’ve been able to maintain our course.”

Dedicated airport slated to open

Aerial view of a project under the development of Red Sea Global in Saudi Arabia. (RSG)
Aerial view of a project under the development of Red Sea Global in Saudi Arabia. (RSG)

Part of planning a mass tourism destination is ensuring access which led to the development of the dedicated Red Sea International Airport (RSI). It will serve tourists visiting over 90 untouched islands, beaches, volcanoes, desert dunes, mountain canyons, and historic cultural sites within the development.

RSI – which will be able to serve an estimated one million domestic and international tourists per year by 2030 – has also been completed and is expected to launch its first flight in the summer.

“It is expected to open in July,” said Pagano. “It opens up with our own seaplane terminal first, then we will open the main terminal to welcome our guests.”

RSI will first run domestic flights within Saudi Arabia – about one a week from summer – but is already “in talks” with several major carriers across the globe for international routes, according to Pagano.

Sustainability at its core

Islands on the Red Sea Project (supplied)
Islands on the Red Sea Project (supplied)

Pagano was hired in 2018 to oversee the project and follow the directives of the Saudi Crown Prince. The first watchword he was given was “sustainability.”

“We had to balance development within our ecological ceiling because we’re the beneficiaries of this beautiful, pristine environment,” Pagano told Al Arabiya English. “And we’re so much smarter today than we were years ago. We’ve learned that we made some terrible mistakes. And so, we started that with that as our guiding principle to not repeat those mistakes, and to preserve what we have so that future generations can enjoy.”

He continued, “The Red Sea is probably one of the last thriving forming systems in the world and so we’re taking extraordinary measures to ensure that this is protected.”

He said this means going above and beyond to protect the natural environment and enhance it for future generations to come.

“The focus on the directives from His Royal Highness was that we want this environment to be enjoyed by future generations. So that was the message. But [we] have moved away from just sustainability – because sustainability is no longer enough – that is just maintaining the status quo. We needed to do more.”

That includes many promises already being put into action, said Pagano, including building new coral reefs, getting to Net Zero in its operations, and working towards ensuring the whole project is powered by renewable energy. This will see Saudi Arabia build the biggest battery storage system in the world to be able to accomplish that feat.

It is also working to plant a vast amount of mangrove trees – more than 50 million by the project’s completion.

“Mangroves not only protect us against sea level rise, but they also protect the islands from erosion, and they are the best at sequestering carbon…depending on what species and where they are they can sequester anywhere between five times and 10 times more carbon dioxide than land based trees,” Pagano told Al Arabiya English.

Six Senses Red Sea, Southen Dunes, to open in 2023 at Saudi Arabia's Red Sea project. (Supplied)
Six Senses Red Sea, Southen Dunes, to open in 2023 at Saudi Arabia's Red Sea project. (Supplied)

According to World Wildlife Fund (WWF), mangrove trees can capture and store carbon.

The muddy soil that mangroves live in is extremely carbon-rich and over time, the mangroves help to not only add to this store of soil by capturing sediment but hold it – and the carbon – in place. The amount of carbon stored beneath these trees is estimated to be up to four times greater than that stored by other tropical forests, making these coastal forests extremely valuable in the fight against climate change.

Red Sea Global’s sustainability goals will trickle down to its operations on the ground, said Pagano.

“We will have Net Zero in terms of mobility – so we will have a fleet of electric vehicles, buses, and vans. The industry is not fully there yet, so we’re struggling in some areas, but [we will].”

According to Pagano, the goal is to ensure that even the planes flying in and out of the Red Sea International Airport fly on sustainable fuel.

This not only involves the import of sustainable aviation fuel but also experimenting with partners to get hydrogen fuel cell-powered seaplanes.

“So, we take the conventional fossil fuel engine off the plane, replace it with a hydrogen fuel cell with an electric motor which is powered by hydrogen,” he said. “We are dreaming big."

Recruitment drive

Coral reefs at Saui Arabia's Red Sea (Supplied)
Coral reefs at Saui Arabia's Red Sea (Supplied)

The development of the Red Sea Project’s vast size needs huge manpower.

And Pagano said they have been working on training a large amount of people in and out of Saudi Arabia to be able to fill the myriad of roles – from front-of-house staff to hospitality workers to airport workers – that will all form a vital part of the Red Sea Project’s success.

In 2018, Pagano was employee number 15. Today, there are more than 3,000 employees at Red Sea Global. Every month the company adds another 100 workers to its roster.

The hotels themselves will have additional staff – more than 1,200 workers at the three hotels to open this year.

This means Red Sea Global has been busy with training programs across the Kingdom, keen to utilize the youth of Saudi Arabia to fill the vacancies and future roles within the Red Sea, and the resort continues to develop and expand.

“We are about to launch our own training academy to help train the hospitality staff... Now you’re getting to something like one or two million people who need to go into the tourism space that don’t currently work in that space. So, there is a huge emphasis on training,” Pagano told Al Arabiya English.

“But that is what the Saudi Vision 2030 is all about, creating jobs. It is about helping to diversify the economy.”

Creating jobs

Nujuma, A Ritz Carlton Reserve (Supplied)
Nujuma, A Ritz Carlton Reserve (Supplied)

Pagano said what has been a “really pleasant surprise” is the level of enthusiasm from Saudi nationals clamoring to work in the Kingdom’s burgeoning tourism sector rather than traditional fields like engineering or medicine that have held previous appeal for the Kingdom’s youth.

He pointed to a moment a few years ago when Red Sea Global launched its International Hospitality Management Programme. A few dozen places attracted more than 16,000 applicants. The company’s latest advertising for intakes saw more than 50,000 applicants.

“There is a huge enthusiasm for exploring new career opportunities, new career paths,” he said. “Historically, you either went into engineering or you went into professional services, because those were the careers that were favoured at the time. But now, people have opened up their eyes to the terrific career opportunities within the hospitality industry.”

Tracy Wirth Lanza, global head of brand development at Red Sea Global, said recruitment and job opportunities would stretch far beyond the traditional hospital roles.

She gave an example of Red Sea Global working with local Saudi mango farmers, using their expertise to develop horticultural and nursery farms.

“It’s not just about land management. It’s about how do the communities benefit. So, there are populations of people that have been living there for a long time, and we’re teaching English for hospitality. We are teaching things like better farming techniques. What we’re trying to do is build the economy so that travel and tourism represents 10 percent of the economy,” she told Al Arabiya English.

Once the Red Sea project is fully operational, Lanza predicts it will add 77,000 jobs and more than $5 billion annually to the Saudi economy.

Changing perceptions

Sweaping desert dunes at Saudi's Red Sea (Supplied)
Sweaping desert dunes at Saudi's Red Sea (Supplied)

Pagano believes the Red Sea Project will help change perceptions about Saudi Arabia and its tourism industry.

“I’ve been guilty of it; you think of Saudi Arabia and think of the desert. But then you actually come and experience it, it’s so much more. The Red Sea is probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. There is this whole wonderful topography and terrain and different climates that visitors are going to get to experience. I think the best thing will be what’s happening this year and next as we start to open our doors and start to welcome people,” he said.

He thinks people will then judge the country based on their own experiences.

“I say, if you’re happy with it, tell the rest of the world - and I think that’s what will happen. Yes, you can go to the Maldives, you can go to Dubai, but we offer something very different,” he continued. “Its nature-based, it’s environmentally sustainable and I think people are going to be super excited when they come.”

Regarding footfall, Pagano, predicts – once the first phase of the Red Sea Project is completed, some 350,000 visitors will visit the destination each year.

Rosanna Chopra, Executive Director of Destination Development at Red Sea Global, oversees ensuring visitors get the best out of the Red Sea – and the wider Kingdom – and that they return to Saudi Arabia.

This week, the Saudi developer announced the launch of ‘Akun,’ a new adventure sports brand catering to guests visiting the upcoming luxury eco-tourism destination, which will complement existing partnerships with water sports and diving brands ‘WAMA’ and ‘Galaxea.’

Chopra said the entertainment offerings at the Red Sea will offer not only a “good time” but will also provide people a chance to “emotionally connect to nature… and Saudi Arabia.”

“When people come, they won’t just come and go diving,” she said. “They will go diving with a conservationist - someone who teaches them and exposes them to why that coral is so important. So, it’s having a purposeful experience beyond just doing something. If you go on a stand-up paddleboard through the mangroves, if all you do is leave knowing that mangroves are more powerful and important to our planet than the rainforests then we have done our job,” the executive director told Al Arabiya English.

“So, everyone who’s going to have a level that connects them emotionally to the destination and then when someone’s connected emotionally to something they want to care about they want to come back.”

‘A bucket-list destination’

Pagano says time will tell when it comes to the Red Sea – and Saudi Arabia – being on the global map for “bucket-list” tourism destinations.

“Saudi Arabia is probably the most exciting travel destination in the world because I don’t think there’s ever a place in the world that has gone through this level of transition and transformation in a relatively short space of time,” said Pagano. “And it is not just about sun, sand and beautiful water. You have the Red Sea and its entire ecosystem. This part of the world is also the birthplace of civilization with thousands of years of history and culture,” Pagano said.

“And so, we have an amazing combination. You could spend time in the sun, then head to AlUla and experience the ancient Kingdoms... Where else can you say that?”

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