The Red Sea Project is like no other tourism development in the world. Not content with merely being sustainable, the 28,000m2 scheme – spread across a 90-island archipelago in Saudi Arabia – aims to have a 30% net positive environmental impact over the next two decades.

Once the project is completed in 2030, it will be home to 50 luxury hotels. Sixteen of those will be in operation by 2023, 11 as part of the Coral Bloom resort, designed by Foster + Partners and located on the dolphin-shaped island of Shurayrah. There will be just one way for visitors, which are capped at one million per year, to access the destination – through the Red Sea International Airport.

“It was envisaged by the client as a gateway to one of the most unique resorts in the world and an integral part of the visitor experience,” explains Gerard Evenden, head of studio at Foster + Partners, which was appointed as the architect of the airport in 2019 after a design competition. “The project offered us an opportunity to create a truly unique transportation hub that is evocative of the region.”

A ‘business-class plus’ experience

Inspired by the soft, flowing forms of the surrounding desert landscape, the design aims to create a calm and luxurious journey for passengers. Its small scale and unique layout, divided into five smaller sub-terminals, will make the passenger experience more reminiscent of private aviation than commercial travel. Nicholas Cole, CEO of daa International, which will operate the airport, describes it as “business-class plus”.

Arriving passengers’ bags will be taken directly to the resort. After going through immigration, which will use smart technology to make the process as quick and smooth as possible, they will descend into a cooled landscape environment and walk to a welcome centre where they can explore the Red Sea experience through multi-media technology while waiting for their electric vehicles to the resort. “We would love to make the whole experience touchless, so there is no opportunity to stop,” Cole says. “There’s a way to go on that right now but we will certainly get there in the lifetime of the project.”

Departing passengers will have a similarly seamless experience, enabled by technology. And while the details for the food and beverage offerings are still being defined, the current plan is to serve complimentary food and drink in an exclusive lounge in each mini terminal. A core objective of the airport is to reduce dwell time and as a result there will only be modest selections available.

From a design perspective, the five terminal pods resemble sand dunes, with the colours and textures of the roof reflecting the desert landscape and blending in with its surroundings. “The themes of the desert, with its oasis and wadi, are carried through in the design of the interiors and arrival garden, while the landscaping has been influenced by Arabian landscapes with a local selection of plants,” Evenden says. “Local materials and textures have been selected to give the design a sense of place. The airport also reflects the modernisation of Saudi Arabia by incorporating smart technologies and building systems.”

Sustainability initiatives

In keeping with the wider Red Sea Project, Foster + Partners has developed several key sustainable concepts for the Red Sea International Airport. The overall form of the terminal building has been designed to protect the internal environment from solar gain and therefore substantially reduce the overall energy demand for cooling in the building through self-shading. Daylight has also been considered, with most of the glazing facing the north, which allows for increased daylight penetration without compromising solar performance.

The fact that the terminal is divided into five ‘mini terminals’, which can be operated independently or concurrently depending on demand, also reduces the overall energy demand of the building when compared with a standard centralised terminal approach. “During low season, some areas of the terminal do not need to be operated,” Evenden explains.

In addition, the terminal uses landscaped and shaded interstitial spaces in order to reduce the heat island effect and increase the thermal comfort of passengers through an improved microclimate. “This has been achieved through a sophisticated thermal zoning approach to ensure a smooth transition for passengers from outdoor to indoor thermal comfort,” Evenden says.

Unlike most airports, the ancillary spaces for the Red Sea Airport, which include hangars and logistics facilities, are consolidated into two wings that flank either side of the main terminal building, according to Evenden. “This strategy reduces the overall envelope of the buildings when compared to the standard stand-alone ancillary building configuration and therefore reduces energy demand.”

A learning experience for all involved

For the past four years, daa has been operating the domestic terminal at King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh. The company is also used to working at tourism-focused airports outside of the Middle East, such as Larnaca and Paphos Airports in Cyprus, which it is involved with as part of the Hermes Airport Consortium. For Cole, the key draw of getting involved with the Red Sea International Airport was its ambitious sustainability goals. “We were very keen to get involved in what we think is a world first, a sustainable luxury tourism development,” he says.

From an operational perspective, daa plans for all vehicles at the airport to be electric, with one or two exceptions, powered by renewable energy provided by the Red Sea. The company will also be encouraging carriers to use sustainable aviation fuel, which is made from agricultural and domestic waste but can also be produced synthetically by combining carbon and hydrogen, wherever possible. “In the lifetime of the project, some of the short-range aircraft like seaplanes could be electric by the time we finish,” he adds. “It’s a journey; we’re at the start of that journey right now. Aviation has a bit of work to do but I think it will get there.”

Cole anticipates it being a learning experience for all involved. “We are experts in airport operations and they will very quickly be experts in how you sustainably develop a tourism resort. We will be learning from Red Sea as much as they will be learning from us.”

Bring the vision to life

There are three stages to daa’s contract with the Red Sea Development Company. The first was the design review, which was split into two phases: the terminal and the airfield. The second phase will involve bringing on board subcontractors and ensuring all assets are ready to operate.

“That begins in the middle of 2022, and will stretch through to the end of the year and potentially 2023,” Cole says. The airport will be constructed using local materials and labour with a zero single-use plastic ethos. The final and most exciting stage is the operation of the airport, which will be operated using 100% renewable energy provided by the Red Sea.

All subcontractors involved will need to hit certain environmental and sustainability standards. “Subcontractors that are not comfortable with that unfortunately won’t be able to work on the Red Sea,” Cole stresses. His advice to those thinking about getting involved is to look at the region more widely and consider its potential.

“If you think one-dimensionally about just the Red Sea then perhaps it may not be that attractive; it’s a remote part of Saudi Arabia, it’s a green field airport. But Saudi Arabia is growing dramatically. There are several other tourism projects being developed, including Amaala. We see Saudi Arabia as the powerhouse of the Middle East,” Cole says. “The intention is to have 330 million passengers by 2030 and we’re well on our way to doing that with the growth we’re seeing in Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam and the 23 small regional airports in Saudi Arabia.”

The biggest lesson Cole has learned from working on the Red Sea International Airport is that anything is possible with the right vision. “The leadership in Saudi Arabia will bring their vision to life, there is no doubt about that,” he concludes. “We’re seeing on the ground now that it’s coming to life very quickly.”

1 million

Passengers will pass through the Red Sea International Airport each year.



Of the energy used in the operation of the Red Sea International Airport will be renewable and provided by the Red Sea.