|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
26 April - 2 May 2001
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Saving SinaiTourists want their holiday sites to be clean and beautiful. Mahmoud Bakr examines efforts to clean up Sinai
Tourism is crucial to Egypt's economic well-being. The famed Pharaonic sites of Giza, Luxor and Aswan enjoy a steady flow of tourists from all over the world. Now other sites are snaring the attention of visitors, thanks to their ecological credentials.
Tourists in the market at Na'ama Bay photo: Medhat Abdel-Magid
Take southern Sinai, for example. The area is already blessed with unique attractions. The intrepid can venture into the desert. The pious or the merely curious can explore Saint Catherine's monastery. History buffs can wander about the Pharaonic monuments at Serabit Al-Khadem. Leisure seekers can lounge on arching beaches, dive among eerie coral formations and breathe the clean air sweeping in from the sea. Even the health-conscious are catered for with the growth of 'health tourism,' promising remedies in mineral rich spas for everything from rheumatism to skin disease. It is hardly a surprise that tourists flock to the peninsula.
But ambitions for the area go much further. General Mustafa Afifi, governor of South Sinai, plans to increase the room capacity of the governorate from 17,000 to 60,000 and the number of hotels from 92 to 147 by the end of the current year. The target, he said, was to put Sharm Al-Sheikh among, "the top five tourist cities in the world, by UNESCO standards." This means attracting 5.5 million visitors a year. To reach this goal, authorities will have to meet tourists' burgeoning demands for a clean environment around their holiday sites.
Afifi is aware of the effect of the environment in realising the full potential of the area: "Clean air, unpolluted beaches, and mild weather the year round: these are highly prized by the tourist market and measures are being taken to maintain the clean conditions," he said.
As measures taken, he pointed to the significant reduction in the number of tourist vessels (from 1,200 to 320). "Ships unauthorised to sail in Sharm Al-Sheikh waters are being rerouted to other destinations in the governorate, notably to Nuweiba, Dahab and Taba," he said. "Moreover, no new licences will be issued until suitable docking facilities have been established." This limit is important because, until recently, ship captains were wont to approach coral reefs and haphazardly cast anchor, often oblivious to the damage they caused to marine architecture.
Similarly, authorities are trying to reduce the number of vehicles in Sharm Al-Sheikh in order to lessen pollution. Now, 1,200 vehicles jostle for room in every square kilometre of the peninsula. Alarmed at this density, the authorities have stopped issuing licences to half-truck vehicles. Facilities and pits to recycle waste and bury rubbish safely have been established in several cities. The authorities realise, though, that a change in attitude is the best solution. "Each month, a day has been designated for the environment. People collect street garbage in plastic bags," said Afifi. "On the same day, one hour is devoted to encouraging awareness among students on how to preserve and protect the environment," he added. The Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA), school teachers and civil organisations all take part. Competitions are organised for title of 'the Cleanest City.' The authorities are eager to beautify the area, too, not merely maintain its present level of charm. Surplus water from water treatment stations is used to irrigate the land and help purify the air. Another initiative has claimed 1,500 feddans for a forestation project in the city of Al-Tor on the west coast. The project will eventually extend to Sharm Al-Sheikh.
On another front, Sayed Atiya, chairman of the local council in the governorate of South Sinai, is asking the Ministry of Petroleum to halt the oil spills that contaminate the beaches of Ras Sidr, Abu Zeneima, and Abu Rodeis. These spills have killed fish and other marine life. Atiya acted after fishermen complained. "They asked for compensation and the Ministry of Petroleum has been requested to take the necessary action," Atiya said.
Many of these initiatives are new, but environmental awareness already has a pedigree in the area. Mohamed El-Gafi, an investor in South Sinai, recalls the establishment of a society for conserving the environment in Sharm Al-Sheikh 15 years ago. "It promoted the interests of investors, and also acted to embellish the city, plant trees and maintain nurseries. The society is as active as ever, and with the same members. It is now called the Society of Sharm Al-Sheikh Investors."
One of the society's successes is having Ras Mohamed declared a protected area. Usama El-Gibali, director of the Ras Mohamed Reserve, stressed the area's tourist appeal. It covers an area of 480 square kilometres of water and land including the peninsula of Ras Mohamed, the island of Tiran, and the sliver of coastline stretching northward from the main port of Sharm Al-Sheikh.
Among the reserve's glories is coral reef, two million years old in parts. Ironically, one of the conservation initiatives at Ras Mohamed involves limiting the activities of the divers who are drawn to its natural delights. The underwater rift cracked open by earthquake off Ras Mohamed was loved by divers. They used to sink into the rift to glimpse the splendid marine life hidden in its deep waters. The authorities have now prohibited diving in the area.
When it comes to preserving the natural beauty of Sinai, there is interest and action at every level. Essam Saadallah, the deputy director for natural reserves in the Gulf of Aqaba, confirmed a plan for protecting natural reserves in South Sinai. Input comes from environmental assessment surveys which are regularly updated. "We are trying," said Saadallah, "by means of land and sea patrols to deal promptly with any environmental problem. There are 22 stations monitoring the state of the environment. They stretch from Ras Mohamed at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula, to Taba in the Gulf of Aqaba," he added.
Kamel Abu Ali, another investor in South Sinai, suggests that environmental issues be integrated into academic curricula at all school levels throughout the governorate. "The population should be warned against excessive use of chemical products harmful to the environment," he explained. He practises as he preaches: his travel agency "teaches staff about environmental issues and raises awareness," he said. Taking their cue from the private sector, the Natural Reserves Department is now organising training courses for tourist guides, hotel managers and motor boat captains on the fundamentals of conservation and handling natural resources. The private sector and civil society take part in cleaning campaigns. With such care, South Sinai may yet survive the growing number of tourists racing to its charms.
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