Skip to main content

How regenerative tourism can help avert a sixth extinction

John Pagano, Group CEO of Red Sea Global, examines the benefits regenerative tourism can bring and explores the importance of biodiversity to both business and planet.

An Emperor Angel fish foraging on a coral reef in the Red Sea.

An Emperor Angel fish foraging on a coral reef in the Red Sea. Image via Shutterstock/Kimmo Hagman

[GreenBiz publishes a range of perspectives on the transition to a clean economy. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of GreenBiz.]

Dinosaurs vanished even without humans around to hasten their demise. Today, man-made threats such as climate change and pollution threaten to erase one out of every four of the world’s plant and animal species.

It’s a chilling prospect, and the threat is accelerating. Some biologists worry that half of all living species could be wiped out within 100 years. Amphibians and corals are among those most at risk in our Anthropocene era — a term that scientists use to describe the current, human-dominated phase of Earth’s existence. 

Our planet’s last great extinction, its fifth, occurred some 66 million years ago and killed an estimated three-quarters of all organisms, including the dinosaurs. To help avert a sixth extinction, delegates from more than 190 countries met at the COP15 international biodiversity summit in Montreal in December. After much discussion, they agreed to set the first quantitative targets for biodiversity. One key goal is for nations to safeguard and restore 30 percent of the world’s land and sea areas by 2030.

Three years ago, my company, developer Red Sea Global, set a similar goal of enhancing the natural environment when we began developing a pristine section of Saudi Arabia’s western coast. That’s where we’re creating two major tourism destinations — The Red Sea and Amaala — and doing it with nature at the heart of every decision we make.

All too often, costal developments have a negative impact on wildlife and natural habitats. And the tourism industry isn’t renowned for sustainability, not least because of its association with aviation, which generates 17 percent of tourism-related carbon emissions, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.

I believe Red Sea Global has a unique opportunity to both protect our precious environment and enhance it, through regenerative tourism, focused on adding a positive impact to the local community and environment. Our remit spans a Belgium-sized area of mountains, desert, more than 90 islands and the world’s fourth-largest coral reef. We realized that our most valuable asset was nature, so before we stuck our first shovel in the ground, we asked scientists to catalog and assess the plants and animals living at our project site.

This matters. Homo sapiens won’t have much of a future as a species unless we act to safeguard and support biodiversity.

Diver exploring a coral reef.

Red Sea Global conducted on of the world’s largest environmental surveys of wildlife ecosystems by a developer, carried out along 250 kilometers of Red Sea coastline. Courtesy of Red Sea Global

Deferring to turtles for site development    

For The Red Sea project, one of our first steps was to assess a lagoon at the heart of our site. We sectioned off all 1,294 square miles of this lagoon into a grid, including its coral, mangrove and seagrass habitats. We consulted marine experts to assign a conservation value to each block of this virtual grid. Our research team then drew up a list of actions to help ease pressure on the lagoon’s environment, from cleaning beaches to rebuilding fish stocks.

Based on our findings, we decided to develop only 22 of our islands and to leave the other three-quarters of them untouched. We also designated nine islands as special conservation zones. One of them would have made a spectacular setting for a hotel except that it was a favorite nesting ground for the critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtle. So, we deferred to the turtles.

In a separate effort, we surveyed the wildlife populations and habitats of 124 miles of coastline. No property developer has ever conducted a bigger environmental survey. One of our scientists visited all 92 of our islands on foot — and she did it twice (wearing out five pairs of shoes in the process).

Red Sea Global is addressing or making progress toward all 20 of the COP15 biodiversity targets that are relevant to our business.

Biodiversity is important for its own sake, but humans also benefit directly from it. Certain species of frogs and toads, for example, secrete toxins that scientists have used to develop medicines, including treatments for cancer and AIDS. As human diseases become increasingly resistant to antibiotics, amphibians like these offer great and largely unexplored potential for the development of new drugs. However, amphibians also happen to be the world’s most endangered class of vertebrates; 41 percent of these species face extinction, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

Red Sea Global is setting new standards for the tourism industry. Prior to the pandemic, travel and tourism accounted for 10.3 percent of global GDP and one in four of all new jobs, says the World Travel & Tourism Council. By teaming up with like-minded hotel operators and other partners, we aim to make tourism a global force for good.

Science-led success    

We’ve benefitted in particular from working closely with the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, where many of our staff scientists and researchers have studied or taught. One of our advisory board members, Carlos Duarte, teaches marine science at KAUST and is a globally recognized authority on the ecology of seagrass meadows.

Scientists such as Duarte, who participated at COP15, are spearheading Red Sea Global’s science-led approach to development. They play a vital role in producing our annual Sustainability Reports, which serve as yardsticks for our progress as we work toward our goal of achieving a 30 percent net conservation benefit by 2040.

Our science-led initiatives include the gardening of corals on offshore floating platforms. We’re seeing a success rate of about 97 percent, far exceeding our expectations, given the coral colonies’ initial state of health. We aim to enhance not only our coral reefs but the dazzling variety of marine organisms that live at them. We’re also taking steps to plant and restore as many as 50 million mangrove trees by 2030. Some mangrove forests can sequester up to 30 times more carbon than tropical rainforests, and their dense roots provide a haven for troves of fish, shrimp, and other sea life. 

To protect biodiversity, we also manufacture off-site whenever possible. For our Sheybarah Island resort, for example, we’re installing stainless-steel, orb-shaped villas that a partner builds in the United Arab Emirates and ships to us ready-made. To minimize our carbon footprint, we will power the first phases of The Red Sea destination and Amaala around the clock by 100 percent renewable energy. Crucially, we will cap our annual number of visitors at both destinations to protect their ecosystems from over-tourism.

I’m encouraged that biodiversity is becoming a bigger global priority. The United Nations just agreed in March to approve the historic High Seas Treaty that provides a legal basis for the COP15 goal of turning 30 percent of the world’s oceans — and the creatures living in them — into protected areas.

Red Sea Global is opening its first resorts this year, and we’re already seeing positive results from our own efforts to support biodiversity. In fact, we are either addressing or making progress toward all 20 of the COP15 biodiversity targets that are relevant to our business.

Our progress as a pioneer of regenerative tourism fuels my conviction that humanity can avert a species apocalypse if we change our behavior — and prioritize all of Earth’s passengers.

The species we save may be our own.

More on this topic

More by This Author