Darkness ahead: Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea destination to be an International Dark Sky Reserve

Enormous west coast area with ambition to become sought-after tourism hotspot is on track to cut light pollution to almost zero

Saudi Arabia's Red Sea destination is on track to be the world's largest international dark sky reserve. Photo: Red Sea Global
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In the Middle East, there has long been a special association with the night sky. For millennia, stories of star-filled inky skies have been told by explorers, pilgrims and trade caravans, all of whom used the celestial map to navigate these desert lands.

Hundreds of stars have names derived from Arabic, including some of the brightest in the sky, like Achernar (which comes from Akhir al-nahr, meaning the end of the river) in the Edidanus constellation, and Deneb (from Dhanab with means a tail of any animal), a first-magnitude star in the constellation of Cygnus.

This connection is as old as time, and is one of the reasons why The Red Sea, Saudi Arabia’s ambitious regenerative tourism destination, is on a mission to become one of the world’s largest dark sky reserves.

Stretching 28,000 square kilometres along the north-west of the kingdom, the coastal region is surrounded by sand dunes and pristine waters. It’s also one of the least light polluted places in the country, something that the team at Red Sea Global not only want to preserve, but to enhance.

“When people who haven't really seen the night sky before visit our sites, it’s amazing to watch them seeing the stars for the first time,” says Andrew Bates, associate director of lights at Red Sea Global. “It’s really quite special.”

By cutting light pollution to almost zero across the region, the destination is on track to become the world’s second largest international dark sky reserve, behind only the Greater Bend in Texas which is a staggering 38,850 square kilometres. Having received a visit from the chief executive of non-profit organisation DarkSky International, the destination is making steady progress.

“We’re working closely with DarkSky International but there hasn’t been a category on this scale before,” reveals Bates. “Typically, dark sky certificates are given to national parks and smaller scale areas so there was nothing really that we could compare to because we're constantly building on a huge scale.

“Our designation is currently under review on the second submission, and we're looking to get the certification via our phase one projects before the end of the year, either in the third or fourth quarter. When awarded, we will be given the same category of certification as the 22 existing International Dark Sky Reserves however the text behind the award will explain that our development is unique, in that it was the only one to be built as an International Dark Sky Reserve from the outset."

While the certification is certainly sought-after, as a means to recognise the destination as a pioneer in the Middle East for dark sky tourism, it’s the reserve itself that is the most magical.

“People don't realise how many stars you can see when you are in a very dark environment,” says Bates. “The idea of people being able to come to this destination and reconnect with the stars is beautiful, and something most don't get to see in everyday life.”

He’s not wrong. According to data from the World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness, more than 80 per cent of the world’s population live in places where the night sky can’t truly be seen thanks to light pollution. The world’s most light-polluted country is Singapore, where the entire population lives under skies so bright the eye can’t fully adapt to night vision. In the Middle East, it’s a similar situation for 98 per cent of people in Kuwait, 97 per cent in Qatar, 93 per cent in the UAE and 83 per cent in Saudi Arabia.

What exactly is light pollution?

But what exactly is light pollution? While many people are familiar with what constitutes water, air and land pollution, light pollution is slightly less tangible.

According to DarkSky International, it is defined as “the human-made alteration of outdoor light levels from those occurring naturally”, and it consists of several components, namely glare, sky glow, light trespassing (where light reaches places it is not intended to) and clutter (excessive groupings of light sources).

Achieving its status as an International Dark Sky Reserve requires Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea destination to cut light pollution to almost zero across the entire destination, no easy task given that it’s an area almost three times the size of Lebanon and an ambition to become one of the country’s most sought-after tourism hotspots.

“We're designing our lighting schemes very carefully, we're keeping lights very warm, very low, very subtle. And this creates an ambient level of comfort for our guests,” explains Bates.

Reduced lighting comes with its own challenges, especially in a destination that will cater to luxury travellers staying at resorts from some of the finest names in hospitality including St Regis, Six Senses and the soon-to-open Nujuma, Ritz-Carlton Reserve, the first reserve in the Middle East from the hotel group.

Because most of the world’s population has evolved to exist in a luminous fog, taking away or reducing that illumination could leave travellers, especially luxury ones that typically want for nothing, feeling a little uneasy.

“There’s a constant discussion between the two elements, the dark sky focus of having very low-level light, and then traveller safety,” says Bates. “It's a fine line between the two and it's a balance, but it's about creating just enough light to allow the guests to safely move around.

“A lot of our resorts plan to have travellers moving around via buggies, and they have their own localised lights. Lighting contrast also plays a huge part, you don't necessarily need a lot of light to see where you're going if it's used in the correct way.”

Travellers visiting the destination are also encouraged to get on board with turning out the lights. Both in a literal sense, switching off lights when they’re not in room and not leaving outside lights on overnight or using mobile phones during stargazing sessions. It calls for embracing the concept.

Keeping the nocturnal natural for sea turtles, migratory birds and bats

When it officially becomes the world’s second-largest international dark sky reserve, The Red Sea hopes to attract tourists from around the world seeking solitude, but the set-up should also benefit indigenous wildlife.

Over-lighting destinations with artificial sources or even specific colours of light can lead have an impact on animals that rely on the night sky for survival. From migratory birds to photoperiodic creatures, like sea turtles and bats, the changing cycles of light and darkness can cause confusion.

That’s particularly true for sea turtles that reside in the warm waters off the coast of The Red Sea, and come ashore to lay their eggs.

Bates explains: “If there’s a lot of light when the turtles are hatching on the beach at night, they might be drawn inland as opposed to being drawn out to the sea by the moonlight, which then means they’re more susceptible to predators.”

Carefully considered lighting can prevent this from happening, leaving animals to thrive in natural nocturnal scenes. It’s not just The Red Sea destination that is going to benefit. Developers at the project are also working closely with local authorities and municipalities in nearby Al Wajh and Umluj to enhance lighting in both towns.

“It’s about educating the communities and we have a team focusing on that outreach project. The plans include replacing façades and retrofitting new lighting fixtures across these towns to try to enhance those areas,” says Bates, who has been impressed at how well the project has been received by the local population.

“I think it’s because of that important cultural and historical link of people’s ancestors having used the stars at night to navigate,” he offers.

And while much of the world continues to develop in brightness, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea destination is on a mission to turn out the lights, restoring an old as time relationship between people and the stars and creating an inky canvas from where travellers can find inspiration in the solitude of darkness. After all, as American novelist Isaac Asimov said in Nightfall, “in the presence of total darkness, the mind finds it absolutely necessary to create light”.

Updated: May 16, 2024, 7:55 AM