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Green Tourism: Striking a Balance

by Madaline Dunn

The travel and tourism sector generates more than 9% of total global GDP and accounts for one in 11 jobs worldwide. But this success comes at a cost. From 2010 and 2019, greenhouse gases produced by travel and tourism rose at an average annual rate of 2.5%, amounting to 8.1% of global emissions in 2019.

Travel and tourism impacts vital local resources. Its water demands can have severe consequences on local eco-systems, industries, and populations, particularly in hotter, water-deprived regions. From 2010 to 2019, the Middle East saw tourism’s water footprint increase as industry growth outpaced water intensity and supplies.

As an industry, travel and tourism needs to rethink its focus and strike a sustainable balance between development and nature. Destinations must shift from exploiting the benefits of their environment, to being conscious custodians of our natural world.

In Saudi

Saudi Arabia’s commitment to environmental action is exemplified by the principles and goals of the Saudi Green Initiative (SGI). Across the Kingdom, the Saudi Green Initiative (SGI) and Vision 2030 plan provide an interconnected vision to restoring nature’s balance, contributing to the global environmental stocktake, and fulfilling long-term sustainability goals as KSA advances from ambition to action.

Built around the aims of reducing emissions, greening Saudi’s landscape, and protecting the land and sea, SGI includes efforts by the Saudi Energy Efficiency Centre to implement new energy efficiency standards across power generation, water desalination, and electricity transmission and distribution by 2025; a partnership between the Ministry of Energy and Saudi Aramco to use captured carbon to produce chemicals and synthetic fuels by 2030; and ambitions for Saudi Arabia to become the world’s leading hydrogen producer and exporter by 2030, capturing more than 27 million tonnes of CO2e to produce four million tonnes of clean hydrogen per year.

In AlUla

In northwest Arabia, the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) is establishing a new tourism destination in a landscape that has seen significant degradation due to poor agricultural practices, depletion of water reserves, and the realities of life in an arid climate.

Guided by the 12 principles of the AlUla Sustainability Charter, RCU’s plans to create a new path focused on protection and preservation, including developing light-touch tourism; balanced agriculture; safe and healthy environments within the circular economy; and embedded resilience.

The AlUla Sustainability Charter drives RCU towards the creation of a circular economy, establishing a framework that promotes resource efficiency, waste reduction, and the maximisation of resource value. By putting the principles of the AlUla Sustainability Charter into action, AlUla is employing a holistic approach to sustainability – one that considers four pillars (social, environmental, cultural and economic components) and integrated into all levels of development in AlUla, whether it’s a master plan or a standalone project.

A necessary part of securing AlUla’s longevity is revitalising nature through regreening and rewilding, with sustainable agriculture and water management supporting the development of a cultural hub for visitors, and home to a local community – all in synergy with nature, not in competition.

RCU has taken its first steps: planting tens of thousands of seedlings, releasing native animal species, and beginning to restore balance to nature. The next phase – to become a carbon neutral destination – requires even greater effort.

AlUla’s goal

By 2035, AlUla’s tourism sector will have matured to the point where visitor numbers are maintained at two million per year – an optimum level that is economically beneficial and environmentally and culturally sustainable. By that year, RCU has set targets to make AlUla carbon-neutral on local emissions.

By 2035, tourists spending 24 hours in AlUla will experience a reduced carbon footprint of up to 62% compared to conventional experiences3. Contributing to this will be sustainable aviation fuels adopted by airlines connecting to AlUla, green-label certified hotels, electric transportation between destinations, amongst other solutions.

These milestones represent the goals of RCU and Saudi Arabia’s sustainability, conservation, and economic diversification strategies.

RCU has developed a city-wide 360-Mobility Plan to increase the use of zero-emission transport, encompassing an electric tram connecting the airport, city, and heritage sites, public electric and hydrogen buses, and e-buggies and e-bikes at hotels and around Old Town.

We are working to support hotels in choosing renewable energy options, while natural AC systems in some hotels will keep temperatures cool year-round, leveraging natural ventilation in our designs to provide fresh air and regulate indoor comfort.

RCU will enforce strict environmental criteria for eco-luxury hotels, homes, offices, and other buildings in AlUla, including the mandate to achieve certification from globally recognised labels (i.e., LEED, EarthCheck, and KSA’s sustainable building rating system, Mostadam). Further, infrastructure will be expected to be certified by Envision.

RCU will soon launch a specialised programme of water conservation and management, which will ensure the sustainable use of this valuable resource across agriculture, tourism, and other key sectors. While unused food, much of which will be locally grown, and other waste will be collected by zero-emission municipality trucks and recycled.

On the ground

RCU is already adopting a holistic approach to sustainability within our eco-tourism plan, centring on integrated social, economic, cultural, and environmental pillars.

The recently opened Dar Tantora by The House Hotel represents an important example of our sustainable tourism and hospitality targets. The upscale eco-lodge in Old Town will feature 30 guest rooms in repurposed traditional mud-brick buildings. The latest low-impact engineering ideas are being activated alongside materials and techniques used locally for generations.

Dar Tantora reflects RCU’s work to regenerate the Old Town. Using eco-tourism as a driver for development powers the creation of new jobs with far-reaching economic, social, and environmental results that will positively affect our community.

The AlUla Centre of Excellence in Earthen Architecture and Sustainable Construction supports our work in advancing carbon-neutral construction, bioclimatic architecture, and heritage conservation. Reusing local materials and adopting tried and trusted techniques complements the basis of an essential circular economy.

RCU’s efforts on the ground to create a sustainable destination centre on including, engaging, and benefitting our community; creating appealing job opportunities in a diverse hospitality sector, launching careers within heritage arts and crafts, celebrating local customs and traditions, supporting a blooming agricultural industry – all to sustain, and grow AlUla’s eco-tourism economy.

Meeting targets

When AlUla reaches its 2035 environmental, sustainable development, and tourism targets, the city will have matured into an enhancement of its cultural and natural landscapes. The holistic approach to sustainability, conservation of AlUla’s water, land, and biodiversity, and RCU’s embrace of light-touch tourism, will have helped to define our achievements.

The decarbonisation of tourism infrastructure will foster diversity within the wider sustainability economy, opening opportunities in areas including agri-tourism, supporting local farms and other specialist sectors.

At the heart of our tourism ambitions will remain AlUla’s unique role as a global cultural and heritage hub. RCU’s challenge is to grow AlUla into a new kind of destination for a new kind of tourism industry – one that is sustainable, environmentally, and culturally focused, inclusive, eco-friendly, and which values nature as a partner rather than a competitor.

By Waleed Aldayel, Chief Strategy & Digital, RCU

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