Let the Deserts Bloom

/ New Delhi
Let the Deserts Bloom

Not just deserts, Saudi Arabia is also home to several ecological sites (Photo: Saudi Tourism Authority)

As sustainable tourism becomes a household word, many destinations and tourism players move to give a green tinge to their products and services. Nowhere is the move towards sustainable tourism as clearly visible as in Gulf Cooperation Council nations which have taken huge strides and invested billions of dollars in attempts to make the Arabian desert the global capital of sustainable tourism.
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What is common between an artist, an environmental activist and a sustainable development official of a large company ? They all know that there are possibly hundreds of shades of green. And these are becoming ever more apparent everyday as the noise around sustainability becomes louder.

For a while now, with rising global warming and dramatic climatic catastrophes occuring frequently around the world, there has been a dramatic increase in awareness about the impact of human actions on the global environment and the urgent need for large-scale changes in the way we do everything in our lives, from manufacturing and farming to building and travelling.

Governments, but largely businesses, especially the large companies, have made big commitments to dramatically reduce their impact on the environment, with most of them settling for promises ‘NetZero’ carbon emissions in distant future, without any clear roadmap on how they would get there.

Most stakeholders in the global travel and tourism industry have also adopted the same fuzzy approach, while trying to appear to be in the forefront of drive towards tourism. But collectively, one region is beginning to stand out and quite surprisingly so.

An unexpected leader

Few would have expected the oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council countries to be the ones making the fastest transition towards sustainability, notably sustainable tourism. And not just commitments or vague announcements, but real investments of trillions of dollars into ensuring that their countries become global leaders in sustainable tourism much before the Western nations, which have been the most vocal about the need to go green, but without matching their words with their actions.

Conservation of mangroves is at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s sustainable tourism (Photo: Saudi Tourism Authority)

Across the entire region, be it the regional giant Saudi Arabia, whose economy is still primarily oil-driven or the tiny Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, every destination is making rapid and real strides towards sustainable tourism.

‘‘GCC countries are investing in eco-friendly infrastructure, promoting eco-tourism, preserving cultural heritage, and implementing waste management and water conservation programmes. These efforts are significant and indicate a strong commitment to environmental protection and sustainable tourism,’’ Steve Odinga of Euromonitor International, a research firm, tells India Outbound.

Danielle Curtis, Exhibitions Director of the Arabian Travel Market (ATM), the largest travel and tourism trade show in the Middle East, highlights the swift moves that the GCC nations are making to imbibe sustainable tourism. ‘‘There are a lot of initiatives that are happening and there are a lot of best practices already happening across the region. But we really need this to become an industry norm if we are really going to take this seriously moving forward,’’ Curtis tells India Outbound.

Saudi Arabian switch to sustainability

Some of the boldest initiatives are happening in Saudi Arabia, which has taken sustainable tourism as a key sector in which to position itself amongst global leaders. Neom and Red Sea Global are some of these projects whose dimensions easily dwarf any other sustainable tourism initiative. Spread over a vast expanse of over 26,500 sqkm, pretty much the size of Belgium, Neom is a futuristic urban community or indeed a small-sized country that is coming up at a ferocious pace in north-western Saudi Arabia.

These ambitious projects form part of Vision 2030, the doctrine laid out by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has allocated a gigantic budget to the most ambitious transition of the country from being an oil-dependent economy to a well-diversified one and with a special focus on developing it as a world-class tourism destination.

‘‘Sustainability has been at the heart of Vision 2030 since its inception. Saudi Arabia is now ushering in a new era as the Kingdom aims to reach NetZero by 2060.We are absolutely committed to net-zero both as a country and as part of the international tourism sector. There is no future for tourism unless it is sustainable,’’ Alhasan Aldabbagh, President, APAC Markets at Saudi Tourism Authority, tells India Outbound.

With a generous budget of USD 500 billion, almost 20 pc of Indian GDP, Neom, set along the Red Sea, is a collective of four distinct sub-projects that are being developed in the region that varies from coastal and island to snow-capped mountains. Saudi Arabia is also developing other projects under Red Sea Global, which is yet another gigantic project involving construction of dozens of hotels and other tourism- oriented infrastructure.

‘‘Destinations like Amaala and Neom are pioneering NetZero energy and concepts like regenerative sustainability, where developments actively improve the environment around them. Our Red Sea Project aims to deliver a 30 pc net conservation benefit in the next two decades and will leave 75 pc of its island archipelago untouched, with nine islands designated special conservation zones. By 2030, Saudi Arabia aims to conserve 30 pc of its land area, so that we can rewild these spaces with more than 20 endangered species, including the Arabian leopard,’’ adds Aldabbagh.

He explains that renewable energy projects are one of the key drivers towards achieving sustainability and by 2030, the contribution of renewable energy to the overall energy mix will reach up to 50 pc. ‘‘Neom’s The Line is a never-before- seen approach to urbanisation, powered 100 pc by renewable energy. Communities will live in harmony with nature, where open space, parks, gardens, the natural environment and sustainable food production are mixed seamlessly,’’ says Aldabbagh.

According to Aldabbagh, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast is home to some of the most resilient coral reefs on the planet and that the Red Sea Development Company is laying the foundation for a sustainable tourism destination and leading the way in conserving and maintaining its pristine marine biodiversity.

‘‘Saudi Arabia is home to many special habitats and nature reserves and 15 sanctuaries have already been created to protect critically endangered species and promote biodiversity managed by the National Center for Wildlife. Visit Saudi is an invitation to a more conscious and responsible approach to tourism, where we are leveraging the fact we are starting from a greenfield to create something new, different and better,’’ Aldabbagh adds.

A broader push towards sustainability

Though Saudi Arabia may have set its sights and targets astronomically high, it is not the sole country in the region to move towards sustainability and the transition is visible across various aspects of tourism, not just in destinations.

‘‘In the Middle East, sustainable tourism initiatives are gaining momentum, led by airlines such as Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways, which are making progress towards NetZero targets and reducing emissions intensity. Eco-friendly hotels and resorts in the region are also incorporating renewable energy sources and energy-efficient utilities. Sustainable attractions and activities, such as eco-adventures and immersive sustainability pavilions, are becoming more popular. Local governments are incentivising and facilitating these initiatives through sustainable tourism strategies, which aim to reduce the environmental impact of travel in the region,’’ says Odinga of Euromonitor International.

Qatar has also taken many steps to promote sustainable tourism (Photo: Visit Qatar)

‘‘The UAE has been proactive in promoting sustainable tourism in the GCC region. Key initiatives by the UAE include the Dubai Sustainable Tourism Initiative, Masdar City, Sustainable Tourism Criteria for Desert Resorts, and eco-tourism initiatives in Dubai. The initiatives aim to reduce the environmental impact of tourism, promote sustainable practices, and create a zero-carbon urban community powered by renewable energy,’’ he adds.

UAE’s capital and largest emirate, Abu Dhabi, has also announced several measures to promote sustainable tourism.

These include Al Reem Mangroves preservation project for the protection of mangroves in Abu Dhabi. It has also announced Jubail Mangrove Park that is presented as an educational, research and leisure destination. In addition, there is Jebel Hafit for hikers and cyclists to enjoy views from the mountains, and the Sweihan Desert area that is projected as a haven for desert lovers and campers. In addition, Abu Dhabi also boasts of some exquisite marine protected areas and a conservation programme centred around Hawksbill sea turtles.

Jubail Mangrove Park in Abu Dhabi is an educational and leisure destination (Photo: Visit Abu Dhabi)

Besides Dubai and Abu Dhabi, which have launched several key and headline grabbing initiatives, even the tiny Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah has made some strategic moves in adopting sustainability. Blessed with some of the wildest nature in the Arabian Peninsula, the Emirate’s tourism promotion body, Ras Al Khaimah Tourism Development Authority (RAKTDA) is projecting the destination as the the ultimate haven of sustainable tourism.

Under the umbrella of what it calls ‘balanced tourism’, RAKTDA is placing sustainability at the centre of its investment, from environment and culture to conservation and liveability. The destination has also roped in EarthCheck, a leading scientific benchmarking certification and advisory group for sustainable travel and tourism. The two organisations have been working together to co-create and implement sustainable practices that address key sustainability and climate change issues facing the tourism industry.

The shift to green is visible across the entire travel and tourism industry, with airlines, hotels, entertainment sites, activity providers as well as travel services firms, all adopting or promising to adopt sustainable practices within a defined time frame.

As aviation companies the world over invest in latest innovations to cut their carbon footprint, the Middle East carriers, especially the Gulf-based airlines, have been at the forefront of this transition of the aviation industry towards sustainability. For instance, UAE’s national carrier Etihad Airways received the Environmental Sustainability Innovation of the Year award from the Centre of Aviation (CAPA) for its progress towards NetZero targets and UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Etihad has committed to cut single use plastic waste by 80 pc by the end of the current year, making it one of the most ambitious targets by any airline in the world. It also says that it is on track to cut the carbon emissions intensity from its passenger fleet by 20 pc within two more years. Similarly, Qatar Airways has also taken a whole bunch of measures to move to sustainability.

Not just the airlines, other tourism stakeholders like hotels and resorts have also been adopting green practices, though at different speeds. Some homegrown boutique chains, notably Dubai-based Time Hotels, have already been adopting sustainable practices for well over a decade, long before it became the buzzword that it is today. Now many others have also begun to move towards sustainable hospitality through initiatives like cutting out single use plastics, installing energy efficient devices, moving to renewable energy sources as well as better water and solid waste management.

Beyond hotels and resorts, even the tourism attractions have also moved to similar benchmarks in attempts to cut their carbon footprint. Another key contribution to cutting the carbon emissions of tourism and travel industry stems from food and beverage sector, which is increasingly turning towards local produce and that too organic.

Another welcome development, at least for the industry, is a report which shows that consumers, or rather travellers, are keen to shift to sustainable tourism experiences and do not mind paying extra for that. The report by YouGov says that 61 pc of UAE residents are willing to pay a premium for more responsible, eco-friendly and sustainable tourism experiences.

The growing importance of sustainability for the tourism sector in the region can be guaged from the fact that the upcoming Arabian Travel Market, which is about to see its 30th edition, will be entirely focussed on sustainability. Over the course of the four days that the event will be held at Dubai World Trade Centre from May 1-4, as many as 63 sessions will see 150 experts from different domains of tourism as well as policy makers and government leaders outline the steps they are taking to drive decarbonisation within the sector.

RAKTDA is placing sustainability at the centre of its tourism offer (Photo: RAKTDA)

ATM 2023 will also see ministers from the UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Jamaica and Spain as well as several private sector business leaders to showcase sustainable innovations, share knowledge and best practice, and explore opportunities and challenges along the road to NetZero.The collective commitment of regional leaders to the development of a sustainable travel industry will offer an ideal framework for the panels, workshops and conversations that take place during ATM 2023, as policymakers, industry leaders and tourism professionals from around the world come together to catalyse the journey to NetZero.

Indeed, the attendees at ATM 2023 can get to see for themselves how many shades of green really exist in the world of sustainability and guage for themselves their favourite shade.

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