As you step out onto your hotel balcony, you face a blue horizon where water meets stretching stratus clouds. Your attention is drawn below you, to the screams of rollercoaster riders as they careen up and around the platform of a multipurpose arena. The coaster angles sharply toward the Arabian Gulf below and for a moment you worry they'll collide, but just as quickly, they appear on the other side of the arena platform.
Your vacation soundtrack includes the bounding jet skis and the thunderous chuff of a helicopter as it lands on a bright green helipad across the platform. Is it a cruise ship, a water park? No, it's an offshore oil rig.
Go Big or Go Home, Right?
We're talking about a massive project called The Rig, but before you start booking your flight to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, you'll have to wait a few years. Construction for this proposed 1.6 million square foot (150,000 square meter) extreme adventure park is slated to begin April 2022. Right now, this tourist destination exists only in ambitious photo models and project scopes.
Project renderings showcase three hotels, 11 restaurants, an extreme sports center, a multipurpose arena, marina, helipad and a range of offshore adventure activities. You could have a luscious lobster dinner in an underwater restaurant while you watch a massive whale shark gliding outside glass-paneled walls. The planners hope that, if you can dream it, you might be able to find it on The Rig.
Saudi Arabia's Shift From Energy to Entertainment
The Rig is part of the Public Investment Fund (PIF), Saudi Arabia's primary investment arm.
Currently, Saudi Arabia is the second-largest petroleum producer in the world. The Rig is an innovative "tribute" to the country's economic success in the oil-drilling market. However, the Saudis hope to become the leaders in another industry: entertainment.
The proposed project is just one piece of Saudi Arabia's larger vision to establish a thriving tourism and entertainment sector and diversify its economy as part of the Saudi Vision 2030 to be "an ambitious nation, build a thriving economy and vibrant society," according to its website.
Plans for The Rig were released just months after announcements for Six Flags Qiddiya in Riyadh, which is scheduled to open in 2023 and will be home to the world's longest, fastest and tallest rollercoaster. They weren't kidding about making a name in tourism.
PIF also said it is partnering with cruise and development companies and seeks to bring jobs, citizens, and internal visitors to the site. By 2030, PIF hopes The Rig will bring in 650,000 tourists a year. Rides, adventure, jobs, economic diversity all on one offshore platform!
It sounds appealing, but is it really possible?
A Feat of Engineering
"At this point, engineers have figured out how to design and build some pretty amazing things," says Anya Tyler, lead mechanical design engineer at Skyline Attractions, an amusement rides manufacturer and designer based out of Orlando, Florida. Tyler is also an expert on theme park engineering. "Currently many cruise ships have rides and attractions that have been engineered to work with the boat moving across the water. I'd imagine engineering for attractions on an oil rig would be similar and possibly simpler since it would be primarily stationary."
The challenge will be in getting materials, labor and machines to and from the offshore platform. Engineers will have to get creative.
"There's less flexibility in the surrounding area to set up and prebuild, or space for large equipment like cranes and forklifts," Tyler says. "Engineering is always a bit of a puzzle and comes up with the best solution in the available constraints."
This isn't the world's first attempt to repurpose a former energy site into a tourist attraction. In western Germany is Wunderland Kalkar, which was built in place of a nuclear power plant that never opened due to construction conflicts and protests.
"With the world getting more saturated with themed entertainment, there's a huge battle to win customers by having the biggest, fastest or 'only' of something," Tyler says. "They're all marketable, but if you're going to spend the kind of money required to build a new park or attraction, you need to know you will get a return on investment."
The Rig is certainly the only tourist attraction of its kind, but we won't know the ROI until they open their doors... er, hatch?
The mantra of "if you build it, they will come" has motivated theme park designers for years. In the case of The Rig, building it is one thing, getting tourists to the platform is another challenge entirely. It's unclear what that means for ocean residents and the environment, in general.
"Commitment to protecting the environment is a top priority for the project," PIF said in a press statement. "To achieve this goal, The Rig will create an organization framework that observes and respects global practice with regards to sustainability and conservation with a view to setting new global benchmarks around the further development and preservation of the environment."
It appears that environmental sustainability is a goal for designers, but PIF has described little about the actual application of sustainability or the environmental impact.
What we do know is that for international tourists, it will require at least one flight and one boat ride to get to the offshore attraction. Planes have the worst carbon emissions per passenger at 0.82 CO2e pounds. You can think of it this way, it would take an acre of forest a year to absorb the same amount of CO2 emissions of a one-way flight from London to New York.
Once you arrive in Dammam (the closest airport) you'll take a 90-minute boat ride to The Rig; on average, a ferry emits 0.07 pounds CO2e per rider. Or you could take a cruise ship which is notorious for the harmful impacts of waste disposal, air pollution and the energy it takes to power offshore facilities.
That's just getting there. Construction of the site will require materials manufacturing and transportation of supplies and machines. Once The Rig is open for guests, food and supply imports will have to travel a long way to get to that underwater restaurant.
Some theme parks — like Port Aventura World in Spain — achieve carbon-neutrality through renewable energy resources and supporting environmental projects. So, it's possible that with planning and design, tourists can have both entertainment and sustainability. For the environmental impact of The Rig, there are more questions than answers at this stage of the project.
Would You Visit The Rig?
Studies in the hospital industry show that where there's a will, there's a way to reduce their carbon footprint while still providing the service tourists want and the environment needs. Developers and engineers of The Rig certainly have a puzzle on their hands and it will be interesting to see how this project pans out over the next decade. If it happens, Tyler says she would be interested to check it out. Would you?