Meet the destination developer rediscovering the Red Sea to transform Saudi tourism

Global Insights
18 April 2024 Riyadh, KSA
  • The PIF-owned Red Sea Global is spearheading new development models to redefine luxury travel 
  • “The future of tourism in Saudi Arabia is about having an authentic experience,” says Noura Islam, Destination Development Manager 
  • Flagship destination The Red Sea spans an archipelago of more than 90 pristine islands


Growing up in Jeddah, Noura Islam saw the Saudi sands stretching to the shimmering Red Sea. But she never imagined she would study the stunning marine life living under the waves or the range of natural attractions along her country’s long, sandy shores. Not until she joined Red Sea Global, that is.


When she visits The Red Sea destination for work today, she kayaks through mangroves, explores untouched islands, and witnesses unforgettable scenes like sea turtles nesting under the starry night sky. 


“It took this mother turtle nine tries to find the perfect spot that would be safe for her babies to hatch,” she says. “While surveying the island and waiting for mother turtles to arrive to lay eggs, I’d look up and see the Milky Way as there’s no light pollution. It was magical. I knew that I wanted everyone visiting The Red Sea to experience it, too.”


With Red Sea Global, her role involves developing activities like these. Every day, Islam dreams up and sharpens destination-driven experiences that not only connect guests with nature, but also educates them on the habitats and species, who call the destination home, showing what’s possible when you emphasize people and places in your approach to work. 


Developing a new plan for the tourism industry 

As much as Islam’s work revolves around developing experiences, it also deals with changing minds. 


Once completed, The Red Sea wants to encourage a relatively new concept known as “regenerative tourism”. In essence, it encourages visitors to enjoy a destination’s native cultures and nature, and even contribute to its enhancement.


“The future of tourism in Saudi Arabia is about having an authentic experience that indulges all your senses,” says Islam. “It’s disconnecting from your busy daily life and enjoying a more present experience where you’re invited to celebrate culture, be amid nature, try unique food that’s different from what you know. With regenerative tourism at our core, The Red Sea aims to paint luxury travel in a new light.”


The Red Sea destination spans 28,000 square kilometers, with more than 90 pristine islands, dormant volcanos, sweeping desert dunes, mountain canyons and historical cultural sites. The final master plan preserves 75% of these islands. Nine islands have been earmarked solely for conservation purposes because of their ecological value.


“We aim to develop the tourism sector responsibly: including environmental considerations across all of our projects,” says Mazen Al-Furaih, Senior Director, Local Real Estate Investments Division at PIF. 


“We hope that the success of Red Sea Global can be evidence that developing with conservation and enhancement in mind can give communities new, sustainable sources of income.”


Within these boundaries, Islam has been able to work in partnership with Red Sea Global’s environmental sustainability team and consultants to create exciting new experiences on land and sea alike – from stand-up paddleboarding through native mangroves and diving at untouched undersea sites to mountain biking across lava fields.


Connecting development with communities

Developing programs that give back to destinations involves more than memorable holidays. Islam also works with local communities to ensure that their culture gets the attention they deserve.


“From my work with them, I can tell you they’re really excited to show visitors their homeland,” says Islam. “They have so much local wisdom to share.”


These communities have even more to gain from The Red Sea and its tourism initiatives. For as much as Red Sea Global invests in building its destinations – when all is said and done, the project will have 50 resorts, more than 1,000 residential properties, several world-class golf courses, luxury yacht marinas, and more – it also aims to develop future leaders within its ranks and beyond.


On top of robust in-house programs, Islam and her team provide training to operational experience brands, which is in turn passed on to those hired from local communities. “We’re always training,” she says. “Investments in people last forever.”


So might renewable energy investments. 


Once operational, The Red Sea will be powered exclusively by solar energy. In July 2023, 760,000 solar panels were installed across five solar farms to help it achieve those goals.


It also organized an “ecotecture” competition to support architecture students at Saudi universities. 


According to Al-Furaih, the design competition for a sustainable future called for imaginative architectural and urban design solutions for the project’s community center, which is located in the coastal village at The Red Sea, set to become home for upwards of 14,000 destination employees. The competition called for imaginative designs that highlight the region’s vernacular architecture while adhering to enhanced sustainability principles and contributing to the project’s ecosystem. The winners will be incorporated into The Red Sea destination – a major boost for aspiring local architects.


Building a wider vision for Saudi Arabia

Out of all the projects involved in Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030 master plan, The Red Sea destination is among the first to come to fruition. For Islam, this means blazing new trails each day.


“My job is never routine,” she says. “Once we perfect our offerings for this year, we’ll need to expand and create new experiences for the years to come. It’s exhilarating to be creating new experiences for guests to come and explore.”


Some of those new endeavors include ways to bolster Saudi Arabia’s wider goals. Al-Furaih says Red Sea Global has developed a mangrove nursery to help the company plant 50 million saplings by 2030. Its aim is to create a net positive impact on the natural capital post-construction, compared to its baseline conditions. Across The Red Sea and Amaala, which is another regenerative tourism venture on the western Saudi coast, there is a desire to work towards the establishment of a marine-protected area. Although PIF’s investment portfolio still includes carbon-emitting projects, these impressive efforts support the Saudi Green Initiative, a nationwide campaign seeking to scale sustainability solutions to help combat climate change.


Whether it’s paddleboarding through mangroves to learn about these marvelous species and their ecological value, or recharging at a solar-powered spa, guests will soon be able to experience all that Islam and her colleagues have worked to build. The first of the destination’s luxury properties – The St. Regis Red Sea Resort and Six Senses Southern Dunes – opened at the end of 2023, along with the airport, which has had a regular schedule of domestic flights from Jeddah and Riyadh since last September. 


Islam can already imagine guests feeling the same sense of wonder she did the first time she snorkeled over the reefs or spotted spinner dolphins leaping out of the sea.


“Whenever I’m at the destination,” she says, “it reminds me of the bigger picture we’re working toward. It’s a dream that is already becoming reality.”


Produced for PIF by BBC StoryWorks Commercial Productions