Saudi Arabia is redefining luxury travel with the Red Sea Project

Luxury, sustainability and cutting-edge technology are at the forefront of Saudi Arabia’s multi-billion dollar Red Sea Project, which is currently under development. By 2030, the destination will feature one-of-a-kind resorts, residences, marinas and entertainment amenities, spread across 22 islands in the pristine archipelago.

“Luxury and sustainability today are now inextricably linked. Modern luxury travellers desire exploration, not exploitation; to be part of a solution, not the problem; to actively ensure that the destination benefits from their visit and they will pay more to ensure that happens,” says John Pagano, CEO, Red Sea Development Company, which is helming one of the world’s most ambitious tourism projects.

Part of Saudi Arabia’s broader strategy to reduce the country’s dependence on oil and fortify its tourism sector by 2035, the Red Sea Project has been envisioned as an uber-luxurious tourist destination, which, according to Pagano, seeks to not just preserve the natural and cultural wealth of the region, but also enhance it. Alongside newly opened heritage site, AlUla, and smart city Neom, this initiative is part of Saudi Arabia’s broader strategy to reduce the country’s dependence on oil, fortify its tourism sector and generate employment by 2035. 

The road ahead

The multi-billion dollar project is spread across 28,000sq.km of land on Saudi Arabia’s west coast, between the cities of Um Luj and Al Wajh, and includes an archipelago of over 90 islands and lagoons. By 2022, the Red Sea Project aims to have developed five islands with 16 resorts offering up to 3,000 rooms. Upon completion, it will comprise 50 resorts with 8,000 rooms, 1,300 residential properties across 22 islands and six inland sites, plus marinas, commercial and entertainment amenities and supporting infrastructure.

The project is expected to generate around 70,000 jobs, 35,000 of which will be onsite. What makes the Red Sea Project such a unique tourism destination is its potential to cater to varied experiences, from heritage tours in the desert to dives among coral reefs. Its terrain varies from pristine islands with white sandy beaches and turquoise waters to desert vistas, canyons and dormant volcanoes. The site also holds immense historical significance as it was once part of the Old Silk Route and the pilgrimage route from Egypt to the holy cities of Mekkah and Medina.

Sustainable architecture and new technology

The development plan, devised in collaboration with multi-disciplinary design firm WATG and Buro Happold, prioritises sustainability and technology such as AI, virtual reality and big data. The strategy includes conserving ecologically sensitive areas of the lagoon, protecting the nesting sites of endangered Hawksbill sea turtles and rare underwater coral, and enhancing intertidal mangroves. According to WATG, the infrastructure will include planned features such as urban drainage systems, a solid waste composting plant, a waste-to-energy plant, solar roads and a solar PV farm. “Where no solution currently exists, we will seek to create them,” says Pagano of the project’s commitment to promoting growth through innovative, sustainable methods. 

Red Sea Project Saudi Arabia
The structure of the overwater villas at Shurayrah island are a tribute to the surrounding coral reefs. (Photo: Courtesy Red Sea Development Company)

The architecture across the archipelago will also reflect this ethos of honouring the natural environment. The inspiration for the villas at Ummahat Al Shayakh Island, for example, comes from the undulating sandy terrain. The villas being built on the islands have been designed by Japanese firm Kengo Kuma and Associates to emulate sand dunes, and the overwater properties have a spiralled form with 360-degree views of the surrounding sea. “The best location for the water buildings was chosen through accurate bathymetry investigation, biodiversity studies and marine engineering studies, in an attempt to prevent any damage to the coral reef and avoiding interfering with the sea currents,” architect Kengo Kuma told Dezeen.

British architects Forster + Partners are set to design 11 resorts on the dolphin-shaped hub island of Shurayrah. While promising uber luxury, they too pay homage to the surrounding coral reef system which is home to several endangered species. “Shurayrah has incredible fauna and flora and a special relationship to its coral reefs. This is a place where you can swim off these islands and be straight into a reef. Very unusual. So, for us the first initial reaction was we want to protect the edges. What we wanted to do was to look at ways of bringing lightweight structures and placing those lightweight structures on an island,” says studio head Gerard Evenden. 

Connecting the stunning Red Sea Project with the rest of the world is the equally futuristic-looking international airport. Here too, the building’s design, by Forster + Partners, has been influenced by the surrounding landscape and uses shaded areas and natural ventilation. “Inspired by the colours and textures of the desert landscape, the design seeks to create a calm and luxurious journey through the terminal,” Evenden tells Designboom.

Red Sea Project Airport Saudi Arabia

According to the Red Sea Project Development Company, the airport boasts of a prime location, within eight hours of 80 per cent of the world’s population, and will include facilities for seaplanes and helicopters. However, Pagano maintains that the Red Sea Project will remain cognisant of its goal of providing unique, ultra luxurious experiences while sustaining the surrounding environment. To this end, he says that while he expects the destination to attract around 300,000 visitors annually by the end of the first phase of development, the plan is to cap the total number of tourists at 800,000 to 1 million annually once the project is completed by 2030.