22 - 28 July 1999
Issue No. 439
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
The last resortAlong Egypt's North Coast, a privileged few holiday-makers enjoy a picturesque view from the privacy of their own luxury abodes and private beaches. Their exclusive idyll may not last much longer, though. Gihan Shahine takes the plunge
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On a typical summer afternoon, the sun gleams over Egypt's 1,200km of northern coastline, while the waves of the Mediterranean sea gently lash its white sandy beaches. The view is picturesque, the serenity unparalleled. Many vacationers, having taken refuge from the sizzling morning sun in their own abodes, are hurrying out to catch the last glimpses of the orange sunset and treat themselves to a calm walk on the beach.
This time, however, the opening of yet another glossy tourist village has interrupted the calm. A famous foreign band is coming to celebrate the occasion, and lines of cars are queuing in front of the village's gates, where security guards are trying to control imminent chaos.
Inside the village, narrow roads lined with whitewashed chalets and villas lead down to the beach area, where manicured gardens and swimming pools add to the scenery's natural beauty. Droves of youngsters from nearby villages swarm onto the beach, flaunting the latest fashion in bathing costumes and sportswear. Some have decided to pass the time swimming, others are already dancing, munching on hot snacks, or just socialising, chattering over mobile phones and enjoying every bit of fun available.
This fun, however, is reserved to the lucky few who can afford a summer house in the region. Along the North Coast, the sea is almost invisible behind endless battalions of tourist villages, to which ordinary vacationers have no access.
"Tourist village" is the official euphemism for compounds of privately owned apartments, chalets and villas. There is no space here for local or foreign tourists. According to official estimates, 112 tourist villages have been built on this part of the coastline, stretching from Agami to Al-Alamein. There are only two hotels in the area.
The planning of the North Coast has recently been the subject of a heated debate. Many tourism and housing experts believe that giving the coastline over to private individuals, who occupy their summer houses for three months of the year, at most, is at best "extravagant", and certainly "a waste of public funds". Developers, on the other hand, argue that the development of the region has proved a profitable investment. Recently, the whole coastline has been submitted to extensive research; comprehensive plans have been outlined for tourism and economic investment.
LIVING IT UP: Parasailing and beach buggies, yachts and summer palaces have earned the North Coast a reputation as the playground of the rich and famous; but as one resident puts it, "many of those who have spent thousands of pounds furnishing and decorating their summer houses do not even spend a weekend here"
Many people regard the construction of summer resorts, where prices for a dwelling (ranging from a chalet to a grand villa) can start at LE150,000 and soar up to LE3 million, as an eloquent symbol of social inequality, a tangible manifestation of the birth and efflorescence of a new breed of nouveaux riches. A new class of Egyptians has undoubtedly been bitten by the summer home bug. TV and newspaper ads encourage this dream: now, it seems, everyone who is anyone must own a luxurious summer house with a private garden and swimming pool.
Marina marks the beginning of the luxury building boom, but it has also entered the media spotlight as a place where the rich and powerful isolate themselves in private palatial dwellings and careless youngsters do all sorts of mischief, flouting law and disturbing social stability with impunity. Last year, a young man died tragically when he was hit by the jet-ski of a well-known businessman. This seemed to sum it all up.
No wonder, then, that many Marina-dwellers are sensitive to press attention. Attempting an official press visit to Marina would be a waste of time; entering as an ordinary vacationer requires the acquaintance of an insider, who would leave a permit with the security guards outside. We felt apprehensive as we reached the gates, but the car sticker bearing the Al-Ahram logo saved the day. The guards seem to have believed we were bringing fresh supplies to the Al-Ahram bookstore inside the compound, and they ushered us in with friendly smiles.
Inside, artificial lakes, quaint bridges, carefully planned vegetation and beautiful sandy beaches dotted with colorful umbrellas and beach chairs all form a panoramic view for the inhabitants of the resort's glossy chalets and villas.
Almost all the units are built in the same style, featuring only slight differences in arrangement or façades, and devoting large areas to greenery. Limestone blocks extracted from the area are used in the construction of the villas, while garlands of flowers and plants adorn the wooden balconies and mashrabiya screens.
In one remote part of the "village" are several lavish villas, their private gardens, swimming pools and tennis courts encircled with high fences to keep the semi-privileged out.
Marina was the brainchild of Abdallah Abdel-Aziz, head of the urban planning committee of the Scientific Research Academy and the retired chairman of the urban planning department at Ain Shams University's Faculty of Engineering. Abdel-Aziz planned the resort as an example of beautiful architecture and landscaping. "The element of beauty has been largely absent in architecture since the 1952 Revolution, when the government shifted focus to provide housing for the poor," he laments. "The result is an eclectic cement forest extending from Alexandria to Upper Egypt. Marina was my attempt to resurrect aesthetic architectural styles."
To attain that goal, he chose "an authentic architecture" which is also "simple, organic and functional". He used "limestone and wood as the main building elements, all extracted from the region's environment, to form an ecological relation between man and nature." Limestone is not only cheap and simple, it is also functional in reducing summer heat indoors. Slanted roofs were similarly designed to cope with winter rain. Mashrabiyas and flowers were used to aesthetically dissimulate ducts, while lakes and large areas of greenery were essential in forming a beautiful landscape, largely absent in a big city like Cairo, where Abdel-Aziz lives.
But where is everyone? It was the first of July, and yet Marina was almost deserted. There were very few people on the beach, few vacationers to interview or to photograph.
"Very few people come here before the second half of July, and it is usually in August that Marina bustles with life," explains Samia Guineidi, the resident of an elegantly furnished villa directly overlooking a private beach, which she shares with a few neighbours. Guineidi was discussing landscaping details with her gardener when we interrupted. "Many of those who have spent thousands of pounds furnishing and decorating their summer houses do not even spend a weekend here. Probably they are busy with their jobs in Cairo. And the place is dead for most of the year," she added.
Why then lavish such money on decoration? Simply "joie de vivre," according to Zohra Hassan, whose husband owns two chalets in different resorts on the coast. "Those who are used to a certain standard of living cannot compromise when it comes to summer houses. And, after all, having a well-furnished chalet or a villa in a nice place like this is a good investment. Prices double and triple over the years, you know."
For many vacationers, Guineidi concedes, it is also a matter of showing off. "It is contagious, you know: many people have recently gone into a competition for distinction, all showing their best," her daughter laughed. Guineidi quickly interrupted: "But I also think beauty and elegance have always been in the blood of Egyptians. Our architectural heritage -- the old palaces and villas -- is adequate proof. I find it positive that people care about gardening and architecture. It is a resurrection of the good old days of the aristocracy."
For Abdel-Aziz, however, the decoration race has led to "sharp violations of building codes, which have partly corrupted the original design of the place. In a desperate attempt to look unique and distinguished, a new class of nouveaux riches have made changes to the façades and surroundings of their abodes, which is criminal and should be punishable by law, if we want to advance in the field of architecture," he asserts.
It's afternoon now, and the morning heat has subsided, bringing life to Marina. Many vacationers have taken to the beach and squeals from jet-skis and yachts break the silence. Youngsters are speeding around in elegant cars, while children roam the streets in their beach buggies.
Are all the stories about reckless youngsters wreaking havoc true? According to veteran Al-Ahram columnist Salama Ahmed Salama, last year's accident was "by no means an exceptional event... but only one in a series which took place that summer in the resort patronised by the new elite." Salama recounted another incident, in which a member of the Shura Council suffered a brain haemorrhage after being assaulted by a group of young men.
"This and other incidents that have taken place in the same resort reveal the contempt the children of rich and powerful parents display for the law. Their arrogance is matched only by the attitude of Israeli settlers in occupied Arab land," he wrote at the time.
"Those stories are partly true," concedes the resident of an elegant villa, who preferred to remain anonymous. "But these youngsters do not constitute more than a minority. It all has to do with upbringing. All my neighbours are respectable personalities who have done a good job raising their children." He then adds with a smile: "Of course, you know the media always tends to focus on negative sides, but I have to admit, recent efforts to impose order and control the bad few have made headway."
Marina has always been considered the pinnacle of the North Coast resorts. Today, however, new villages have emerged, competing in luxury and facilities. Marina itself has expanded and a new resort, under the name Venice, is under construction. Its grand villas are designed to overlook the water from all sides.
Leaving Marina behind, we headed to a new village where, we heard, chalets are for sale at LE3 million. "Our prices are not that high, they range between LE282,000 and one and a half million, depending on the location and the size of the unit," protested Magdi Kamel, who works in the sales department. But who buys at that price? "We have already sold 70 per cent of the units and all our customers are Egyptians," Kamel boasted. "Actually, we are here to fulfill an increasing demand for unique summer houses with even more privileges than those constructed before."
Although still incomplete, the village seems to have one of the nicest landscapes on the northern coastline. The private beaches are dotted with palm trees and straw umbrellas. The village, designed by a British consultancy office, is perhaps the only one with an amusement centre, bowling arcades, a discotheque, a shopping centre, three swimming pools and a compound for water games. There is also a hotel, a greenhouse where rare plant species brought from all over the world are bred, and an artificial forest.
"I would like to live here forever," sighs Fathi El-Sayed, the owner of a palatial villa, with a private garden and a swimming pool, in the new village. For El-Sayed, who is from Alexandria, a summer resort is an outlet for those living in such crowded cities as Cairo and Alexandria. "One can no longer stand the packed beaches of Alexandria and its congested roads. I, and many of those who have come here, would very much like to move here permanently."
The North Coast, however, has not thus far been designed to fulfill Sayed's wish. "The coast has been the outcome of inconsistent planning," according to housing expert Milad Hanna, who explains that the region was designed to provide summer condominiums for the rich, who would otherwise spend their money traveling abroad. "This affluent class is satisfied with its gains and has made a fortune selling its dwellings at double or triple the original price," he maintains. A two-storey villa in Marina which cost LE150,000 in 1994 may now be sold for LE2 million, according to Hanna.
"The result is that this exquisite coast, this 'delicious fillet steak', has been devoted to a certain class of people and some professional syndicates, leaving no space for public beaches, turning the coastline into a copy of the Great Wall. This is absolutely against the basic principles of sustainable development," he complains.
Many experts even believe the development of the North Coast has not even covered its costs and has thus been an extravagant waste of public funds. "Tens of millions were spent on utilities, infrastructure, roads and electricity to create haphazard tourist villages which are only used for a month or two during the whole year, with no economic or social gain whatsoever," Salama mourns. Hanna concurs, adding that Marina pays LE5 million a year to channel desalinated water from Alexandria.
Officials at the Ministry of Housing, however, refute such charges, asserting that investments in the North Coast development have been profitable and that high returns have accrued as a result. They build their argument on the fact that developing the coastline has led to the creation of new job opportunities and encouraged the growth of many industries like cement, ceramics and steel.
But wouldn't it be better for the national economy to devote the coastline to investment projects which would have brought high returns to the country? "Tourist villages should have been established to ensure a steady flow of foreign tourists all year round, while reserving several months of the year for the use of the owners," Salama suggests. Similar ideas were implemented in Tunisia and Spain, the latter attracting about six million tourists a year. "This was enough to bring investments flowing in. Yet the activity that characterises the North Coast in summer comes to a halt in November. This coastline becomes a chilly ghost town in winter," Salama laments.
Hanna adds that economic investments could also be channeled to the southern part of the coast. Such economic projects as reclaiming land, producing medical plants and flowers for export, using solar power to desalinate water and applying genetic engineering to produce crops that can be irrigated by brackish water can all be implemented to develop the region.
"Had these ideas been implemented several years ago, we wouldn't have had the Great Wall," Hanna says. All these ideas were put forth by a Dutch company in 1975, in the form of a comprehensive plan for the sustainable development of the region. The plan included other ideas, like using some land for cattle breeding, boosting the cement industry, exploiting underground mineral deposits, establishing tourist investment projects, and leaving some space for public beaches.
Another project was introduced by Abdel-Aziz for the sustainable and comprehensive development of the area. "In the original master plan I designed, there were five hotels, large playgrounds, a golf course, a canal connecting Mariout Lake with the sea and a maritime centre. The plan, if applied, would have attracted many tourists to this beautiful part of Egypt. I never designed Marina as a second home area, and my main concern while planning the coastline was to attain the dual goal of maintaining the natural beauty of the place while encouraging investment. The developers, however, preferred private housing to make quick gains," he says.
Many experts also deplore the fact that both plans were ignored by the former minister of housing, although Hussein El-Gibali, head of the Urban Planning Authority, an affiliate of the Ministry of Housing, asserts that the main guidelines of those plans were largely implemented, especially those concerning infrastructure and roads. "Even the locations of the first three tourist villages the ministry built in the area -- Maraqia, Marabella and Marina -- were chosen according to those plans," he states. "But we cannot just apply a plan as it is, for we may find it inconvenient in some aspects. The golf course is one case in point. The ministry did not find a golf course profitable in that particular area. Again, plans are never eternal; they should be updated according to the latest concepts of development."
One of the achievements El-Gibali attributes to the current minister of housing is the establishment of the industrial city of Burg Al-Arab in the region. "The city brought life to the coast, attracting many people to live there," he notes. "Another agricultural project was also launched to use rain water in irrigation and thus help the Bedouin settle in the area and carry on with their traditional activities."
Today, the Cabinet is considering two studies, one presented by the Ministry of Housing and the other by the Ministry of Tourism. The projects were outlined on the orders of Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzouri with the aim of optimising the tourist and economic potential of the 1,200km strip stretching from Rafah in Eastern Sinai to Salloum on the Libyan border, especially those parts that have not yet been subject to urban development.
The project, designed by the Tourism Development Authority (TDA), aims to maximise use of vacant land and focus on improving tourist facilities and services such as hotels, airports, transport and roads.
"The plan includes the establishment of a marina following international standards and providing several facilities, to attract worldwide yachting tourism," says Adel Radi, head of the TDA. The project, Radi adds, will also integrate all the area's historical and architectural potential. Bedouin villages as well as Greek and Roman ruins will be put on a tourist sight-seeing agenda. The area will also be endowed with theatres and cinemas.
"These plans are likely to put the area on the tourist map. What we have now is a dead site, devoid of any activities or means of amusement," Radi maintains. This site was even created at the expense of nature, and on the rubble of many Roman and Greek relics. Bulldozed by haphazard construction efforts, these were recently excavated and partly restored.
"The TDA project will be one part of a holistic plan designed by the Ministry of Housing to develop the area into a new community with different sorts of activities in the fields of industry, agriculture and tourism," says El-Gibali. The plans, however, focus only on undeveloped areas; others "are not a priority now", according to him
For Hanna, however, this is not enough. "We should reinvest the areas that have already been subjected to poor planning by launching investment projects on the land that lies behind tourist villages, and by encouraging people to rent their summer abodes in the winter to holiday-makers from colder countries. This is far better than crying over spilt milk," he insists.
(photos: Abdel-Wahab El-Siheti)