Regenerative sustainability is where travel is heading
Sustainability is no longer good enough. It’s a term that’s been bandied about liberally by almost all industry verticals to the point that it has lost real meaning. In travel and tourism it ranges from using locally sourced products to only washing your hotel bathroom towel when absolutely necessary.
The rise of travel destinations using token ‘sustainability’ measures and claims to ‘save the earth’ has come with increasing accusations of ‘green washing’ – using marketing spin to persuade people that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.
Sustainability is essentially keeping things as they are. Not damaging the environment. Leaving a place as you found it.
Regenerative sustainability, on the other hand, is all about improving or enhancing the environment. The New York Times spelled it out aptly in an August 2020 article entitled: Move Over, Sustainable Travel. Regenerative Travel Has Arrived.
“If sustainable tourism, which aims to counterbalance the social and environmental impacts associated with travel, was the aspirational outer limit of ecotourism before the pandemic, the new frontier is “regenerative travel,” or leaving a place better than you found it,” it reads.
This new frontier is being explored by developers and destination management companies in far flung areas of the planet such as Japan, Costa Rica and Saudi Arabia, where The Red Sea Development Company (TRSDC) is in the process of building 50 luxury hotels, an international airport and a range of leisure facilities in a pristine and relatively untouched area on the west coast of the country.
Announced in 2017 as one of the crowning jewels of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 programme to diversify the economy away from oil revenue dependency, The Red Sea Project comprises an archipelago of 90 islands, mountains, sand dunes and dormant volcanoes spread out over a 28,000km2 area the size of Belgium.
TRSDC has made a bold claim to make a net conservation impact of 30% by 2040. A claim that no other developer in the world has made for an area as vast. But what does that actually mean?
“We’re taking a regenerative approach to development. From project planning and the materials we use in construction, through to destination and tourism management,” explains TRSDC’s CEO John Pagano, a development veteran of London’s Canary Wharf as well as the world-famous Baha Mar resort in the Bahamas.
“We’re looking at everything from committing to achieve carbon neutrality to managing visitor numbers to avoid over-tourism. We’re finding new ways to reduce the environmental impact of running the destination. And we have the ultimate goal of actively enhancing it.”
Much of the understanding of what levels of development could and could not be done at the site and how it was to be done was derived from a monumental Marine Spatial Planning study, published in Frontiers in Marine Science in April 2020. The paper was co-authored by a multinational team of researchers including scientists from KAUST, the National Technical University of Athens and the University of Thessaly, alongside executives from TRSDC.
The paper describes how the research team used marine spatial planning to generate net positive conservation outcomes for the 2,081 km2 Al Wajh lagoon through the development of The Red Sea Project.
“The results of this study demonstrate that, through careful design and planning, coastal development has the potential to enhance, rather than jeopardize, conservation,” said Pagano. “We believe that this innovative approach to destination design, grounded in marine spatial planning, can create a new relationship between tourism and the natural environment in the 21st century.”
Regenerative sustainability is not only about the environment. It also looks at how to bring social and economic benefit to the local population. On completion in 2030, TRSDC anticipates a capped one million tourists a year and aims to create 70,000 jobs, directly and indirectly, while contributing $5.8 billion to Saudi Arabia’s GDP per year henceforth.
It has already implemented a number of initiatives to train and employ local residents in new jobs in the area in addition to providing scholarships in international hospitality management.
“The aim is to become a global reference for eco-tourism, development, conservation, and, more importantly, regenerative sustainability. The project is a force for progress from its inception,” says TRSDC CEO Pagano. “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.”