More than 2000 years ago Roman travellers visited Egypt to see the ancient pharaonic ruins and, like irresponsible modern tourists, left graffiti that can still be seen. Today tourism is Egypt's largest earner, employing more than 2.2 million people. Over 75% of the country's tourist activity is concentrated on the Red Sea. Towns and resorts such as Hurghada and Sharm el Sheikh are the major focus of investment, with both government and World Bank support, but mass tourism threatens to ruin Egypt's unique heritage.
In human terms, development has already reduced access to long stretches of coast by the Bedouin and other local tribes, restricting fishing as a source of income. Michel Tourniaire, Regional Vice President of Operations at Six Continents Hotels (whose properties include the Crown Plaza, Sharm el Sheikh), says "I just hope the construction in Sharm will stop soon, as we are shooting ourselves in the foot."
There are currently 40,000 rooms but management consultants estimate there will be 50,000 by 2005. This will mean the drastic lowering of room rates, attracting the "wrong" kind of tourists: mass market travellers, often disrespectful of local culture or ecosystems.
At Hurghada, until recently a small fishing village, unrestricted construction and a lack of strict urban planning have resulted in minimal regard for aesthetics or the environment. The disastrous result is that around 80% of the area's live coral has effectively been destroyed.
However there are reasons for hope. Belatedly, legislation has been enforced by the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency to prevent new development from destroying the coastline, coral reefs or tidal flats. Meanwhile Assem Fathi, Chairman of the Sinai Company for Tourism Development, points out that environmental concerns dictated the supervision of Coral Bay Marina, north of Na'ama Bay in Sharm. "At all stages of construction we made reef protection a priority. We have three floating piers and no one gets near the coral."
In the late 1980s Samih Sawiris, son of the chairman of the Orascom Group, wanted somewhere quieter than Hurghada (a childhood haunt) to moor a few boats and relax among family and friends. However, together with his brothers, Naguib and Nassef, he has ended up creating an entire environmentally-friendly town over a period of ten years. Situated 21km north of Hurghada, El Gouna (or Lagoon) has grown to become one of Egypt's premier tourist resorts.
The town's infrastructure is independent: Orascom built electricity plants, a sewage treatment plant, roads, lagoons, and has installed satellite phones, a transportation network, two marinas, a Nubian-style village, an airport, a hospital and an international school. Most important of all, in a desert land, says Samih, "we have a water treatment plant that enables us to reuse every drop of water in an efficient way."
While the lack of community involvement and the scale of Egypt's Red Sea developments mean they can't be classed as eco-tourism, respect for some of its key principles can help preserve marine life and local culture. Responsible tourism practices are gradually being applied at large resorts, offering hope for a region once blighted by thoughtless development.
Contributor: Jaqueline Burrell