Memories in the sand
On the beach in Marsa Alam, Tarek Atia
sees a refining of the resort town recipe
Click to view caption|
REACHING FOR GLORY: Um Galawa's charm has already made the secluded spot a movie star...
There are no waves at Um Galawa beach. The crystal-clear, blue-green water is "a carpet", as they say. Which makes the sight of a large, half-sunken boat, just a hundred or so metres off the shore, all the more striking. Its sun-beaten wooden frame, a medley of gold and maroon, gives the beach a storybook feel.
The wreck is part of Um Galawa's charm. There's nothing else here but the perfect aquamarine clarity of the Red Sea -- sand, sky, and the rugged silhouettes of nearby mountains as far as the eye can see. No massive concrete hotels a la Hurghada, no Mall No. 7 a la Sharm.
Just a few kilometres south of Um Galawa beach, the massive Port Ghalib project is emerging. Where once there was nothing but empty coastline, today a world-class marina that can host a thousand 50-metre yachts has been built. Its quays meander, Venice-style, under arched bridges. A boardwalk is under construction; by next year its hundreds of elegantly designed storefronts should be complete.
Back at Um Galawa, Omar and Ali -- my six and four year old sons -- are busy searching for cool-looking shells on the beach. They are collecting memories with the naturally sculpted treasures they find in the sand. But even with the occasionally shrill and excited yell, "Look at what I found!" the atmosphere here is as quiet as the world can be.
A seagull glides nearby, the slowest I've ever seen a bird fly. As I follow its lazy, early summer saunter, I wonder how long it will be before this quaint beach is forgotten amidst the hustle and bustle of a town bringing in a million tourists a year. What developers decide to do with places like Um Galawa, after all, reveals a lot about priorities.
In Marsa Alam, the future certainly looks well thought out; visiting the emerging town at such an early stage of its life cycle, and seeing the confident plans first hand, it's hard not to be swept up in the optimism. Especially since the visionaries behind this 18km strip of isolated coastline 700km south of Cairo are imagining a St Tropez on the Red Sea, and have the artist-designed sketches to prove it.
Still, a healthy dose of scepticism is natural, considering I was also lucky enough to have explored some other formerly- out-of-the-way places before developers started envisioning better futures there too. The North Coast, Ain Sukhna, Ras Sudr, Sharm El-Sheikh, Hurghada -- I remember them all as empty beaches, or one hotel towns. Today, there may be a couple of bright spots between them, and a few obvious disaster areas, but in general, none are as nicely developed as they could have been.
Port Ghalib plans to change that dynamic, and its magic wand is called the master plan. Learning from their predecessors' mistakes, the powers that be in Marsa Alam are trying to prevent the over-development, environmental degradation, and haphazard aesthetics that mark other places as clear cases of massively lost potential.
NO EXCEPTIONS: Some places fade into memory, or become homogenised into the standard, all-encompassing concept of a sea, sun and sand resort, impossible to distinguish from anywhere else. In different ways, catering to different clientele, Hurghada and the North Coast have both become like that, their cookie cutter coastlines dotted with carbon copy "villages" that don't really invoke villages -- or anything else really -- at all.
The minaret-like watchtower at the Port Ghalib Marina is the polar opposite of that. Its style invokes the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo; from close or afar, it gives the place character, cementing its inclusion in the brain's "unique memory" lobe. For those onboard the yachts sailing into the port from their round-the-globe jaunts, it will be the first thing they see. As visitors descend onto the town from the airport, its spirals will be the first to catch their eye.
I climb the narrow staircase to the top of the watchtower with Captain Sherif Fawzy, who has been in charge of operating the marina since it first opened for business in 2002. Like all the other pioneers I met in Marsa Alam, he is infected with a go-getter's momentum. Coming here, for Captain Sherif and the others, was not just about the job; it's also about moving to a place that's trying to provide a new lifestyle paradigm -- not just for Egypt's tourism industry, but for the country as a whole. It's part of the emerging culture calling for things to be done differently. And the best place to do it is someplace completely new.
A few minutes earlier, we were sitting in the pre-fab structure that currently serves as Captain Sherif's office. Outside, the Tutu 1, a mid-sized dive yacht, was sailing into the marina to re-fuel. Suddenly, there was a knock on Captain Sherif's door. "Come in," he says.
A red-faced gentleman opens the door, nods, and offers a curt "good morning." He looks around expectantly, then says, "They told me I can't drop passengers off while refuelling." He leaves the sentence hanging in the air, his eyes trained on Captain Sherif for any sign of sympathy or apathy, a nod from the boss-man that there might be some exception to the rule. "I'm sorry, you can't drop passengers off at the station," Captain Sherif says, without hesitation. "But you can drop them off when you park." His tone is firm, but polite, and the man quickly gets the point. He's not happy, but he doesn't even bother asking again. "Where does he think he is?" Captain Sherif says.
PRIDE OF PLACE: The marina will be the centerpiece of Marsa Alam. The project's owners -- the Kuwaiti- based M.A El-Kharafi Group -- are pouring $1.2 billion into plans to turn the area into the new resort capital of the Red Sea. They already have an international airport, and the kinds of power, water, and communications infrastructure in place that other new, out of the way communities can only dream of.
From atop the watchtower, the scope of the Port Ghalib project becomes clearer. The wind is intense up here, as it is all along the south Red Sea. Where there used to only be Hurghada, tourists now head for hotels in Makadi, Soma, Safaga, and Qusseir, as well as a smattering of other resorts not associated with any particular emerging town along these 300-or-so kilometres of beautiful, untouched beach.
The Kharafi Group owns most of the 18km of coastline north and south of the Port Ghalib marina. These 25 million square metres were purchased from the government in 1998 for LE280 million, or LE11.2 per metre. The deal also included the construction of the country's first BOT airport, which the group has already built and will operate for 50 years before transferring it over to the government.
By then, if all goes according to plan, Port Ghalib will be the attractive capital of a series of small cities along the coast. Captain Sherif dreams of the day when 30 or more marinas might be in operation. Pointing to the dozens of berths, already filling up with traffic, in the marina below us, he says there is already a very cooperative atmosphere emerging between Port Ghalib and the smaller marinas at El-Gouna and Abu Tig. The long-term goal is to help bring some of the 150,000 yachts sailing and moored on the Mediterranean over this way.
It helps to be in control of most of the process, not to have to depend on anyone else, including the government, for your livelihood. At the marina, an official entry point into Egypt, impressive facilities are being built to simplify the customs and visa paperwork needed by international vessels. The customer will not see this network of back offices processing government- related business, Captain Sherif says, because a Port Ghalib employee will take care of it, in 30 minutes or less.
Once the boats are settled in, the fun can begin, since the marina is really just meant to be the gateway to a wide ranging and exclusive leisure environment -- featuring beach resorts, diving excursions, golf, shopping and entertainment -- that aims to parallel, if not exceed, the most famous in the world. The marketing literature mentions Puerto Banus, Sun City and St Tropez; the detailed master plan will remind many of the kind of master planning that goes into resorts in Disney and Dubai. For Captain Sherif -- a former navy officer who long ago moved to the private sector world of petroleum -- it's about time this kind of long-term planning, organisation, and attention to detail came to town.
"This is our baby," he says, looking from the wall- sized window in his nearly completed future office towards the far reaches of the marina and the vast expanse of the coral-filled sea. "If we nurture it carefully, it will grow, and we will be proud."
There may be no one in Marsa Alam prouder of what's happening to this small town than Mohamed El-Deek. Another of the pioneers, El-Deek has been here for decades. A veteran PR commando, he first worked in the mining industry, and clearly knows the area's history and terrain better than almost anyone. He tells me of the first local dive camp, the still-popular Marsa Shagara, which up until 2000 was the only place operating at even 70 per cent of capacity. He describes his excitement when, in 2002, 14 flights landed at the new airport in one week, and the newer resorts that had sprung up in the area were at full capacity for the first time.
Both Captain Sherif and El-Deek -- who handles PR and administrative matters for the Kharafi Group's projects in Marsa Alam -- speak in terms of milestones, landmarks on the path to a comprehensive goal. In the lobby of the Coral Beach Diving Hotel, the first of 23 hotels that will eventually be built by the Kharafi group in Marsa Alam, El-Deek repeats the master plan mantra: "the key is controlling the way the entire operation looks and feels, not letting just anyone who wants to open a kiosk or a mall or build an ugly hotel do so."
IT'S ALL ABOUT CONTROL: Kharafi's chunk of Marsa Alam will probably end up dwarfing the dozens of other nearby resorts -- including four thriving Iberotels -- already operating in the area, hosting the Italian, German, British and Swiss holidaymakers who arrive by the thousands on charter flights coming into the airport.
Today, Marsa Alam International Airport averages 35 flights a week; its director, Gilles Caignard, expects 500,000 passengers to come through in 2005. I visit Caignard at around noon on a Saturday, the busiest day of the week, when the airport gets 13 or 14 flights from Italy. "If everyday were like Saturday," he says, Marsa Alam could bring two million tourists into Egypt on its own.
Caignard, who works for Airports de Paris, which manages the airport, exudes the same enthusiasm as Captain Sherif and El-Deek. Originally an accountant, Caignard was previously deputy director at the French capital's Orly airport, in charge of the security file. He spreads out charts and graphs that show how efficiently the airport handles baggage and passport control, despite the fact that divers are renowned for bringing in extremely large amounts of heavy and often complex equipment.
Caignard sees Marsa Alam as more than just a potentially successful resort destination. With the job opportunities that would be created by all this tourism, "the potential for Marsa Alam to become a self-contained city helping people move out of the Nile Valley" is also there.
He makes a suggestion that hints, again, that this place's optimistic spirit might be more than just a PR gimmick. If Marsa Alam adds a culture component to its tour mix, he says, French tourists would flock here. Caignard says his countrymen were "disgusted by what happened to the environment in Hurghada," referring to the concrete-dominated haphazard development. That could be another plus for Port Ghalib, which boasts of being an ISO-certified environment-friendly resort (one of the reasons why there will be more lagoons than beaches, so as not to disturb the precious coral at the core of the place's reputation). Caignard's vision -- a combination beach and antiquities vacation that could easily be arranged via quick flights to Abu Simbel -- is being studied for feasibility; in any case, it reveals the kind of synergy that might be at work here.
A similar sense of dedication emerged in my conversation with Rene Yelanguezian, the Armenian-Lebanese-British manager of the Coral Beach Hotel where we were staying, which is run by the British resort chain Millennium. Keeping in mind the journalistic nature of these encounters, I still sensed that their spirit was not all media-driven. There was something empowering going on here.
Maybe it was as simple as this. Here was a hotel or resort project starting up in the middle of nowhere, and yet there were excellent electricity, water, communications, and transportation facilities operating from day one. That's a far cry from the situation in Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada, Marsa Alam's older twins. Even today, some of the more luxurious areas of Sharm still get their water trucked in.
In that sense, being a pioneer here is more of a pleasure than a burden. You get to concentrate on your core work. Which, in the end, means making sure the customer -- the visitor, the tourist, the diver -- is having the best possible time he can. There is no evidence of a hurried, get rich quick dynamic in Marsa Alam. It appears to be more of a let's get filthy rich, slowly, kind of thing. It's nothing when compared to the speed of what's going on in Dubai, where a huge marina dotted with dozens of skyscrapers a la Miami's South Beach emerged in just two years. But it seems to be touched by the same aura -- a can-do attitude, driven by endless supplies of cash, and an uncompromising, daring vision.
Port Ghalib's Marketing and Sales Director Tarek Hamdy says the company's focus on master and urban planning, rather than just architectural and resort planning, makes all the difference. Only the government or a long-term investor could pour $150 million into infrastructure facilities like power, fiber optics, telecom, sewage, and an airport, he says. Port Ghalib is not competing with Dubai, but with other destinations that offer Egypt's mix of unique historical heritage and natural charms. Turkey and Cyprus come to mind. In any case, with all its cultural and historic options, Egypt could actually provide much more for tourists than Dubai, as long as it perfected the modern, private sector approach to hospitality and luxury. Maybe Port Ghalib could be the engine that will drive the country towards that lucrative goal.
TAKING IT STEP BY STEP: When we first arrive, there are at least 20 high powered luxury yachts lined up on the pier; by the next morning, at least half have gone off on their intrepid journey into the sea.
For now, that is one of the most popular forms of tourism here, with dozens of charter flights arriving from places like Gatwick in the UK, their passengers going straight from the planes to the yachts for five action packed days of scuba and sea. But we are here for another sort of tour pleasure -- one the founders of Marsa Alam hope will become just as popular as the scuba jaunts -- good old resort lounging. The catch is the total quiet of an as yet unspoiled territory.
The key will be in delivering the kind of hospitality that promise demands. Our first problem struck just after check in. Considering that the Coral Beach has not even had its soft opening yet (the staff were all wearing "pre-launch" t-shirts), and we appeared to be the only ones staying at the hotel, we thought it was odd that we were not given a room with a better view.
In fact, we seemed to have been given a room with one of the most mediocre views. Here we were, on the beautiful Red Sea, and all I could see from the balcony were a few Arabesque style buildings and half a palm tree. No pool, no marina, no sea -- despite the fact that the hotel's brochure boasts of the majority of rooms having a "sea view from their private balcony".
It would seem logical, and good for business, for the reception staff to be trained to make guests seem special. That would encourage repeat visits and positive word of mouth reputation. One easy way to do so would be, when the hotel is empty, to give the few guests you have the best possible room in their category -- the best possible view, for instance.
A sharply worded complaint of that sort seemed to produce instant results -- a staff member was soon knocking on our door with keys in hand, ready to take us to our new room with a better view. By this time, the kids were asleep and so the move was not that easy. When we finally got to the room, which was on the other side of the hotel, we were disheartened to discover that its view was even worse -- of construction on another part of the resort -- again, no beach, no marina, no pool. Another call to the reception -- this time sharply worded would be an understatement -- and we were eventually found a room with an astoundingly perfect view of the marina and the beach. And where was this new room? Right next door to the first room.
So why the original botched move and the need for so many angry phone calls? I posed these questions to the general manager, Yelanguezian. He calmly replied that it was unintentional. The reception staff was still being trained; they had only just started to get the hang of the computerised room reservation system.
Fixing these kinds of quirks was what the pre- and soft- launches were all about. Instilling that special hospitality touch was an ongoing, gradual process. "I always accept mistakes, but it's difficult to accept neglect," Yelanguezian says, by way of explaining why it's more important for him that "employees have the right attitude more than the right knowledge". With 35 years of hotel management expertise, including nine years at the Ramses Hilton and five in Sharm El-Sheikh, knowledge is what Yelanguezian is there to provide.
He credits the industry with vastly transforming itself in the past few years. "Now it's time to be even better, by providing in-depth training in all the more specialised aspects. like housekeeping, or pastry-making." Being here -- seeing all the construction going up everywhere at once -- reminds Yelanguezian of Sharm El-Sheikh, another resort town he saw rapidly develop into a global destination. And then he says it: "But the master plan will make all the difference here."
That plan also includes a residential tourism component, being done on a large scale in Egypt for the first time. With 400 apartments around the marina, and 7,000 units planned in total, prices may appear to be on the high side, currently being offered at between $1,400 and $1,800/square metre. But with the smallest units selling for around $100,000, European buyers -- who are not only looking for an exotic beachfront property, but guaranteed property management facilities and high return on investment -- are expected to bite. Again, the key selling point is the integrated nature of the project as a whole, an overall atmosphere meant to inspire people who first take a dip in the water to eventually dive right into the game.
BACK TO UM GALAWA: Marsa Alam is already a movie star. Um Galawa beach is undoubtedly the best thing about this summer's hit romantic comedy/mafia thriller Ahlam Omrina (The Dreams of Our Lives), by director Othman Abu Laban. A video clip aficionado, he used the scenery -- including the fabled wreck -- as an engaging backdrop to a story that started out well, before quickly fizzling into ludicrous gunplay and staged shark attacks. The musical morality tale told of how it was better for young people to build their dreams in a beautiful new Egyptian place like Marsa Alam, than end up washing dishes in some rotten hole after desperately pursuing a visa to anywhere but here. While somewhat contrived, the movie's idea of Marsa Alam being a place where a new way of life might be explored does seem to have some validity on the ground. The other new resort towns south of Hurghada have already attracted a great many people from southern Egyptian Nile Valley cities like Qena and Edfu. Many have settled down with their families in the old port town of Qusseir, so called because it represents the shortest distance through the desert from the Red Sea to the Nile. For Nasser Arabi, a driver employed by the Port Ghalib project, and 70 or so of his colleagues, the 45- minute ride into work from Qusseir to Marsa Alam every morning is just a regular commute -- albeit one where the view is stunningly beautiful. Nasser, who just recently got married, says all of these new tourism-related opportunities have really been a blessing from God.
Is Port Ghalib's attempt to transform tourism development in Egypt taking matters to another, much-needed level,or just a pipe dream? My conversations with Nasser, as well as with some of the hotel's new employees (the vast majority of whom, like Nasser, were from southern Nile towns) seemed to reinforce the idea that Marsa Alam's "spirit of community" -- as termed by Yelanguezian -- may indeed be infectious. If anything, they show that what the developers of Marsa Alam have to work with, in many ways, is a blank slate. In itself, that's a very unique situation, and why the end results will allow us to judge them fairly -- since there's no baggage, and no one else to blame.
As an equally blank slate, Um Galawa's fate is also at the core of Marsa Alam's potential to become a world-famous resort. The secluded beach's natural mystique is precisely what Port Ghalib needs to preserve, a compliment to all its high-end fashion plazas and fancy master planning. Shiny, modern beach communities have never been easier to find. But when places like Um Galawa fade away, they are as impossible to bring back as the innocent hours we used to spend collecting memories in the sand.