According to the World Health Organisation, 1.3 billion people (or one in six of us) experience “significant disability”. Rosanna Chopra, executive director of destination development, for Red Sea Global reveals how Saudi Arabia plans to become the world’s most accessible holiday destination.

The forthcoming Red Sea destination on the west coast of Saudi Arabia is on track to welcome its first guests this year when the first three hotels and phase one of the Red Sea International airport opens. Upon completion in 2030, it 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. Phase one of Amaala will be ready to welcome its first guests in 2024.

“We pledge to pursue a total commitment to accessible tourism from day one. As a visionary developer, we have the chance to build in accessibility from the ground up, creating exceptional experiences for every visitor to treasure, regardless of their physical or cognitive ability.”

John Pagano, Group CEO of Red Sea Global

Rosanna – tell us about Red Sea Global’s new accessible tourism initiative and what inspired you to spearhead it?

“I have a special needs daughter called Aurelia. She has a very rare brain condition called lissencephaly. When she was a baby it was easier to manoeuvre her around but now she’s 11, she’s grown a lot so travelling with her is becoming more complicated. And it’s not just the airport – airports are usually amazing. My youngest child loves travelling with her big sister because she doesn’t have to queue. Where the real challenge comes is at a destination. Often they have badly built assets or assets that were not built with disability or accessibility in mind. And the cost to retrofit them is significant.

“So I started thinking – could bring Aurelia to Saudi Arabia? When I started to look into it, yes I could, but what could Red Sea Global be doing that would make the experience better? I studied the UN-backed standard, ISO 21902, for accessible tourism and could see that many things were being done, but there were many things we needed to do. I presented my idea to our group CEO John Pagano in January 2023 and he approved – and not just for the Red Sea Project, but for every project in the Red Sea Global portfolio. We have called it ‘Project Aurelia’.”

What will this look like in reality? What kinds of improvements will there be on the ground?

“The ISO guidelines are very well written out. You have everything from built area and mobility, to operations, to wayfinding and signage, to experience design and destination marketing. It really sets out the framework for what you must follow. So firstly it’s about raising awareness of visitor accessibility needs and the disability services so we can provide support.

“Then we will look at adaptive equipment for sailing, diving, stand-up paddle boarding, and for people who want to go on adventures in the desert. There is so much new and amazing stuff becoming available. Our diving subsidiary, Galaxea, will even provide PADI-certified adaptive support divers.”

For a lot of people, when they think of accessible travel, they think of just the sort of practical logistics of sort of getting around in a wheelchair like and don’t really think beyond that. But it’s also about how to have fun holiday with a disability isn’t it?

“You’re absolutely right. That’s what people think. They think, do we have a ramp? Do we have an ambulift? But I am asking ‘how can we as a family can happily go on holiday?’ That’s where the industry currently has a challenge because in so many instances, it’s almost easier to leave Aurelia at home where she would be more comfortable, more settled. But then we as a family become fragmented in our down time. This whole initiative goes beyond addressing the mandatory things.

“There’s also the adventure and the excursion opportunities for children with autism, with ADHD, right through to physical disabilities and major neurological disabilities but also people who are going through physical rehabilitation after an accident or surgery. It’s the experience part that is a real anchor.”

Tell us how Project Aurelia will help “regenerate humans” who visit Saudi Arabia?

“Project Aurelia is also about regenerating humans. Consider the fact that 80 per cent of parents of children with special needs get divorced. Sometimes days are really dark and your heart hurts so much – you wonder how you’re going to move to the next point. And when two parents are trying to deal with that level of pain and hurt, often they have to do it as individuals. It’s a very difficult thing to do together.

“Where I’ve been so fortunate in my life is my family are up trees, on boats, on paddle boards – we are out doing everything and are very practical. Aurelia is included in everything, even if it means hoisting her on to a boat, using a winch, which it is not meant for hoisting people. What I’m saying is that my husband and I have been lucky enough to bank a lot of positive, happy experiences as a united family, which have helped us get through the really difficult times.

“What we want to do through our adventure company Akun, for example, is create experiences that help people have a sense of achievement and accomplishment, and help them develop courage and resilience. We want to help families bank these positive experiences that will make them stronger. People with impairments also get so tired of dealing with it. It’s draining. So if they have moments where they’re okay and they have peace, they themselves will feel stronger.

“Red Sea wants you to leave as a better version of yourself – that’s always been our ethos. It’s more than coming and getting a sun tan and perhaps learning a new skill and eating some great food and having a wonderful time. It’s the broader commitment that we’re making to accessibility.”

Are there any other destinations or resorts that you’re looking at that are doing this well at the moment?

“It’s been interesting to see Queensland in Australia. They’ve made a real commitment and what’s been impressive there is how they are empowering local businesses. There is also a brilliant initiative in Greece to make hundreds of their beaches accessible through a partnership with Seatrac.”

What’s next for Saudi Arabia as an accessible tourism destination?

“People with limited mobility and those who need accessibility support will be welcomed from day one, when the first hotel opens. Can we do things better? Must we do things better? Will this be an ongoing process? 100 per cent. But going forward, every single design brief and every consultant we engage with must stipulate in their RFP or in their awarded contract that they must adhere to the ISO standard. We no longer accept submissions from entities where they have not factored this in.

“We won’t get it all right on day one. But if all we do is try and apply the same gentleness and softness and humility of the very child who inspired this, and we continue with that same honesty and humility that John leads the entire organisation with, I’m quite confident we’ll do great things that will contribute to something that goes beyond the boundaries of Saudi Arabia.”