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Sustainable tourism the new priority for Middle East  

Red Sea sustainable tourism Red Sea Global
Saudi Arabia's Red Sea Global is putting sustainability and natural attractions at the heart of its offer
  • Sustainable tourism in the Gulf estimated to be worth $246bn in 2022
  • Many wealthier tourists favour sustainable travel
  • Schemes aim to boost local economies

Sustainable tourism was once viewed as a marginal segment of the Middle East’s offering – an eco-lodge in Jordanian desert, or a Bedouin trail in the Sinai.  

Times are changing. The Gulf’s marketing chiefs are rolling out ambitious projects that are designed to lure the eco-conscious traveller. Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Global project airport will be run on renewable energy. 

The Middle East is fully embracing sustainable tourism, estimated by the World Travel and Tourism Council to hit $246 billion last year.

The UAE has also laid down a marker. 

“It is investing into sustainability across the supply chain,” said Katarina Uherova Hasbani, global director of strategy and advisory at research firm AESG.

“Covid brought the realisation that we need to localise more. Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Ras Al Khaimah are creating distinct sustainable offerings that we will see emerge in the coming years.”

Such schemes cater to an evolving market sentiment. Research from YouGov shows that more than four in 10 global consumers agree they are willing to pay more for responsible, eco-friendly, and sustainable trips. This increases to 52 per cent among wealthier people. 

This reinforces the importance of prioritising environmental conservation within the luxury travel industry, to align with the values of this lucrative target audience.

Giving brands an edge

“Creating awareness and communicating about green practices or regenerative tourism can give brands an edge when they already compete on other major factors like uniqueness, convenience, quality and others,” said Eva Stewart, global sector head of travel & tourism at YouGov.

“The added assurance that travel experiences help the environment and local communities will reassure affluent travellers who are aware of the importance of sustainability and expect it.”

The Middle East’s rich history, culture and diversity also suit sustainable tourism. The region’s young demographic can tap into with the skills, and motivation to develop and grow the local culture and economy.  

National schemes will help provide a backbone for sustainable tourism efforts. 

In 2021, Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism announced a $200 million fund to support energy efficiency in hotels. Another scheme, the Eco Egypt Initiative, promotes a Green List to promote best practice in hotels, diving centres, eco-lodges and other tourism services adopting sustainable practices.   

Long-term approach

Project backers are keen to ensure that new sustainable tourism schemes are rooted in local communities.  

Ufi Ibrahim, CEO of the Energy & Environment Alliance, highlighted how destinations have championed the concept of regenerative tourism — using it to regenerate the ecology of the local area. 

“In Saudi Arabia, there has been rewilding and the reintroduction of animals, bringing back the biodiversity that had been lost,” she said.

In Dubai, a new Agri Hub will feature an ecotourism centre and restorative wellness centre. 

“Agritourism has the potential of creating a radical change in various sectors to promote greener economies and food security,” said Baharash Bagherian, CEO at URB, the consultancy backing the project. 

“These can enable an entrepreneurial culture and promote collaboration between various sectors and industries.” 

Integrating sustainability also means building a more viable business in the long term. Said Hasbani: “It’s about creating businesses that are resilient, efficient and well governed.”

The wider private sector sees opportunities too. In February 2023, the Rotana hotel group implemented new sustainable and locally sourced breakfast offerings across UAE properties. 

“In Jordan, Centro Mada is the first Rotana hotel to rely almost exclusively on solar energy,” said Guy Hutchinson, president and CEO at Rotana. “In Abu Dhabi, Saadiyat Rotana and Beach Rotana have integrated solar power partly into operations, resulting in an overall reduction in emissions.”

Challenges

There is still a long way to go. Transitioning an ageing stock of buildings to energy efficiency is a difficulty for some markets, and inevitably means trade-offs. The carbon footprint of transport is another obstacle, particularly flights.

“One of the main challenges of sustainable tourism is to balance the requirements of travellers with the needs of the local community, while also protecting the environment,” said Bagherian.

That means monitoring impacts. Tourist satisfaction should not be compromised; instead, said Bagherian, they should enable a higher quality of experience. 

“There are very few destinations in the world like Saudi Arabia, making such a substantial strategic bet on tourism, and, with so much new infrastructure coming, there is a fantastic opportunity to get it right,” said Hasbani.

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