When will Saudi Arabia’s The Red Sea development open and what can travellers do there?

The first phase of the luxury ecotourism destination will welcome guests this year with hotels, activities and a new airport

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In 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced the kingdom's newest tourism megaproject on the country's Red Sea coast.

The Red Sea destination was to be a sprawling luxury ecotourism project developed on Saudi Arabia's untouched west coast with luxury hotels, pristine coastlines and ultra-luxury resorts to rival the Maldives.

Fast forward six years, and The Red Sea, one of the world’s most ambitious regenerative tourism projects, is now getting ready to welcome its first visitors.

Developed over 28,000 square kilometers of land including a vast archipelago of more than 90 islands, the destination promises turquoise-lined coastlines, unrivalled marine life and a variety of upscale accommodation options.

While the exact opening date has yet to be announced, the first phase of The Red Sea is on track to launch later this year when at least three hotels, the region's new airport and some tourist experiences will open.

More activities and facilities may be added to this list, but Red Sea Global, the developer behind the site, is deliberately being conscious not to rush the launch to make sure the natural surrounds and wildlife are not unduly disturbed.

“After the construction phase, we have to allow the land and sea to resettle and reestablish itself and to see exactly what our natural biodiversity wants. We fully expect turtles to arrive on our islands and find new places to nest,” a spokesperson from Red Sea Global tells The National.

The remainder of phase one, which consists of 16 hotels, will be fully completed in 2024. By 2030, The Red Sea will comprise 50 resorts, offering up to 8,000 hotel rooms and more than 1,000 residential properties across 22 islands and six inland sites. It will also include luxury marinas, golf courses and several entertainment and leisure facilities.

The airport

The Red Sea lies 500km north of Jeddah, between the towns of Al Wajh and Umluj. Getting to the destination will be easy as the Red Sea International Airport is opening its phase one terminal this year.

“We are putting the finishing touches to our first phase terminal which will be equipped to receive travellers on flights from Riyadh and Jeddah from this summer,” the Red Sea Global spokesperson said.

The airport's launch will allow international travellers to catch a connecting flight from either of Saudi Arabia's two biggest cities.

Conceived by British architect Foster + Partners, the new airport looks set to be something special. Designed to imitate the experience of a private aircraft terminal, it will feature smaller spaces and is inspired by the colours and textures of the desert landscape. Set to be the region's first carbon-neutral airport, it will be powered by renewable energy and house a green oasis with live plants.

Travelling here is designed to be easy, with efficient arrival and immigration processes and checked baggage being sent directly to accommodation. Five departure suites are being designed as pods, where travellers can be dropped directly outside. Inside each pod will be spas, retail options and restaurants, and bags will be loaded directly on to flights after being checked in before guests depart their Red Sea accommodation.

When fully complete later this year, the air hub will be able to handle one million domestic and international passengers each year, which will be good news for the estimated 250 million people in Europe, Asia and Africa that are within a four-hour flight time of The Red Sea.

From the airport, visitors will be able to directly board seaplanes and boats, or rent yachts to cruise around the islands. Sustainable electric buses are already in operation.

The resorts

St Regis Red Sea Resort

The first St Regis hotel to open in the kingdom, The St Regis Red Sea Resort is located on Ummahat Island, and is reachable via chartered boat or seaplane. Opening as one of the first three hotels at The Red Sea, the ultra-luxury all-villa property will offer travellers a Maldivian-style experience complete with overwater villas and endless ocean views when it opens in May.

Designed by Kengo Kuma, the renowned Japanese architect lauded for his ability to merge architecture with nature and social responsibility, the resort offers 90 overwater and beachfront villas, each with a private pool. There are three signature restaurants, including one all-day dining space, an Asian outlet and a steakhouse. Guests can converge around the resort's swimming pool, indulge at the St Regis spa or keep fitness goals on track at the high-tech fitness centre. There's also a children’s club and all guests checking in can expect St Regis’s renowned butler service during their stay.

Nujuma, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve

Meanwhile, azure waters, untouched beaches and private overwater villas await at Nujuma, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve opening in the second quarter of the year as part of the first phase of The Red Sea.

Marking the brand's debut reserve in the Middle East, and joining only five other Ritz-Carlton Reserves worldwide, the luxury retreat blends indigenous design and highly personalised services to ensure travellers want for nothing.

It will have 63 water and beachside villas, with one to four-bedroom layouts available and a barefoot luxury vibe. On site there will be a luxury spa, several swimming pools and a number of dining venues. A conservation centre will offer insight about the region's unique fauna and flora. The island destination is also set to include 18 Ritz-Carlton Reserve branded residences.

Six Senses Southern Dunes

Nestled in the desert dunes of The Red Sea, the Six Senses Southern Dunes is a 76-key resort that makes the most of the region's inland wadis and mountains.

The resort has a distinctive flower-shaped canopy, which shelters a lush oasis. Planted with local species of flora, it cools the space naturally and its lightweight, rope-clad "petals" accommodate the hotel lobby and welcome areas, while also offering amazing views of the mountains and desert beyond. This is also where travellers can find the Six Senses Earth Lab — where guests can learn about sustainable initiatives at the hotel and in the region, including harnessing renewable energy from the Sun and water preservation.

Luxurious hotel rooms are located towards the valley, each with mountain views, and there are 40 sand-coloured mountain villas, carefully dotted across the terrain. Each open-plan abode has an outdoor terrace with a plunge pool and majlis-style seating areas, where travellers can unwind in the midst of nature.

The resort also has a sprawling spa with self-shaded water surfaces and deep cold pools creating a contrast to the hot climate. Inside is a holistic anti-aging centre, male and female grooming spaces and indoor zones with wet facilities, sensory suites and outdoor treatment cabanas with relaxation areas, as well as a pool bar.

The resort’s specialty restaurants are all situated at the site’s highest point, so that sunset dining comes with beautiful vistas, and there's also an in-house cooking school where guests can learn how to create authentic dishes from local ingredients.

What to see and do

The Red Sea is a sprawling destination crossing sweeping desert dunes, mountain canyons, dormant volcanoes and ancient cultural and heritage sites, as well as pristine shorelines and untouched waters. This means that it has the perfect natural landscapes to offer a wide variety of traveller experiences.

“From scuba diving and snorkelling in the Red Sea to relaxing hikes through canyons and sailing expeditions, Red Sea Global is curating experiences for all traveller types. We are designing experiences for travellers with a sense of adventure, but a love of luxury, who want to cut their knees during the day and lie on cotton sheets at night,” a spokesperson for Red Sea Global said.

Surrounded by the world's fourth-largest barrier reef system, snorkelling and diving opportunities in these untouched waters will offer some of the world's best underwater adventures. Guests will also be able to book outdoor excursions including stargazing trips, cultural tours and camel trails.

Updated: January 28, 2023, 5:51 AM