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John Pagano to Asharq Al-Awsat: We Are in Active Talks with Investors, Partners to Bring Red Sea Project to Life

John Pagano to Asharq Al-Awsat: We Are in Active Talks with Investors, Partners to Bring Red Sea Project to Life

Sunday, 3 February, 2019 - 07:00
Mosaed al-Zayani
One of the world’s most valued geopolitical and economic Red Sea shores lies on Saudi Arabia’s western coastline, currently undergoing the development of 28 thousand square kilometers of its total area. The location is expected to emerge as a world-sought tourist attraction.

In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, John Pagano, CEO of the Red Sea Development Co., uncovered interesting details on the transformational project:

Tell us about your meeting with the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques?

We were very honoured to be invited to present the master plan to His Majesty and we are grateful for his endorsement of our economic and developmental objective to become a global luxury tourism destination.

The Red Sea Project aims to position the Kingdom on the global tourism map, create investment opportunities for the local private sector and develop the Kingdom’s tourism industry. We also recognize that we must achieve this while preserving the nation’s cultural and environmental heritage. Throughout the entire process of master planning I have been struck by the foresight of the Kingdom’s leaders in insisting on balanced development of this pristine destination. His Majesty’s endorsement gives us the confidence to proceed, knowing that we are on the right track.

Now that you’ve announced the Master Plan, are there companies already on the ground to implement the development?

We have already begun work on the enabling infrastructure for the development. Our base camp is in place and we are moving ahead with the construction of labour villages, temporary roads, jetties and other logistics infrastructure to support the wider development of the destination.

At the same time, we are moving into the detailed design phase for our various built assets and we are in active conversations with the investors and partners who will work with us on bringing the destination to life.

The first phase of the project, scheduled for completion in 2022, will include up to 3,000 hotel rooms, as well as residential properties and recreational facilities. We are also developing an airport to serve the destination, transportation and utilities infrastructure and a marina.

What impact will The Red Sea Project have on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its goal of diversification?

The Red Sea Project is conceived as a creator of jobs, a cultivator of entrepreneurial activity and a driver of economic development in line with the objectives of Vision 2030. Tourism is a major contributor to the world economy, accounting for as much as 10 percent of global GDP and supporting one in ten jobs worldwide. By contrast, tourism accounts for about 3.5 percent of Saudi Arabia’s GDP and four percent of employment, so simply increasing tourism opportunities will support economic growth. We estimate that the Project will contribute up to SAR 22 billion per year to the Kingdom’s GDP and support up to 70,000 jobs.

You have said that The Red Sea Project will create 70,000 jobs, when will this happen by and what percentage of these jobs will be for Saudis?

By completion, the project will directly employ around 35,000 people and will support an equivalent number of jobs in the wider community by creating opportunities for local businesses, entrepreneurs and supporting industries. As an employer, our primary mandate is to create opportunities for Saudis and we will be investing significantly in training and development programs to foster the skills and capabilities that we need.

Is it possible to disclose the names of the companies that have designed the initial designs for the project?

We worked with some of the world’s leading architectural and design companies to develop initial concepts for the destination and we were impressed by the creative and innovative proposals that we received. The designs were beautiful, iconic and, most importantly, fully embraced our commitment to set a new standard in sustainable development. We are currently finalizing the list of companies with whom we will be working going forward and we will announce the details in due course.

You said that 22 out of 90 islands will be developed based on the master plan. Why was this number selected? Are there islands that will remain pristine at the site?

As part of our initial preparatory work, we undertook a marine spatial planning simulation to gauge as accurately as possible the impact of development on the environment. No such computer simulation has ever been undertaken on this scale before and the specialized software necessary to run the model was developed here in Saudi Arabia. The results led us to rethink a number of our original ideas and to reduce or relocate some of our planned development.

Our master plan aims to increase biodiversity in the region by as much as 30 percent in the next two decades, which would be equivalent to designating the entire area as a Marine Protected Area. To achieve this we plan to develop 22 islands, leaving 75 percent of the islands untouched and, in fact, will designate nine of them as special conservation zones to protect the species that live and thrive there.

What measures are you putting in place to ensure that the natural habitat of the area is protected during the development of the destination?

We are putting in place developmental, regulatory, and technological measures to ensure that we protect, preserve and enhance the natural environment that is our greatest asset.
At a developmental level, the marine spatial planning study that informs our master plan is the result of a significant investment of time and resources and has already had a tangible impact on our development plan. For example, we decided to relocate our visitor experience centre when we learned that the original site that we had selected for it was a favorite nesting ground for the hawksbill sea turtle. We have also scaled back some of our development plans to avoid disturbing bird colonies.

At a regulatory level we are pursuing a policy of 100 percent renewable energy at the destination, with no connection to the national grid. We will generate and store all the energy we need using only renewable sources. We are committed eventually to implementing policies of zero single use plastics, zero waste to landfill and zero discharge to sea. To do this we are working to push the boundaries of what is possible.
That means, for example, that we must seek to develop new technologies to manage brine, which is a waste product of the desalination process. Normal practice is to discharge brine back into the sea. We believe that we can find a better, more sustainable way of managing brine and are already working on identifying innovators who can help us do that.

At a technological level we are installing a network of sensors throughout the destination to monitor environmental markers in all terrains. This will help us monitor, for example the salinity and clarity of the surrounding waters as well as aridity and wind patterns of inland destinations.

Our objective is to set new standards in sustainable development, respecting the species that were here before us, creating opportunities for the local communities and enhancing the destination for the future.

How do you plan to incorporate technology into the project, and how will you use technology to achieve your sustainability goals?

In addition to the network of sensors that we are putting in place to monitor the environment, we are developing a comprehensive smart destination network that will allow us to carefully track and manage visitor experiences. This will simultaneously provide our visitors with a seamless, completely personalized end-to-end experience and also manage traffic to and through the destination.

An important objective from the outset is to manage over-tourism, which is an increasing challenge for destinations around the world as the cost of travel decreases and the affluent population increases. We are putting into place technologies such as biometrics, personal carbon footprint trackers, virtual concierge services, centralized journey planning, augmented and virtual reality and traffic management algorithms that will ensure our visitors have a unique and memorable experience at the destination and at the same time protect the environment from the inevitable damage that over-tourism causes.

What are the criteria against which you will measure your ‘new standards’ in sustainability?

New standards in sustainability can be achieved in one of two ways - we can seek to define the standard and hope the world will follow, or we can hold ourselves to a higher standard against the models that currently exist. Thus, we are not simply seeking to preserve the environment: we are seeking to enhance it. We are not simply using renewable energy during the day and relying on the grid at night: we are using 100 percent renewable energy, 24 hours a day, every day. We are not using the best available technology to manage brine discharge: we are actively seeking out new technologies to manage this challenge.

Our objective is to be the world leader in environmental sustainability across all phases of development – planning, construction and operation – so that the site will actually benefit from being opened up to tourism and will flourish as a result. And we will share the knowledge we gain and the lessons we learn with the rest of the world in the hope that we can inspire other destinations around the globe.

If you were asked to summarize in a few words, what distinguishes The Red Sea Project?

The Red Sea Project is the most ambitious tourism development in the world. It will provide visitors with an unparalleled variety of unique experiences delivered to the highest standards of personalized, luxury service. And it will offer them the satisfaction of knowing that their visit to the destination will help to preserve its extraordinary natural beauty for generations to come.

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