Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Biting the hand that feeds

By Mahmoud Bakr

The environment and tourism are dependent on a delicate balance between development and protection of a country's natural resources. On the occasion of "Arab Environment Day" and the "Red Sea Year," the Arab Union for Youth and the Environment organised a conference designed to apprise youth of the economic, social, political and environmental importance of the Arab seas and shores.

Tourism as a trade activity -- one of the world's chief industries -- is expected to have a high and sustained growth rate. However, Environment Ministry Counsellor Mohamed El-Nazer warned that should the stress on tourist sites exceed the capacity of those areas, "deterioration or even irreparable damage of the environmental system" will ensue.

Tourist numbers over the last two decades have risen on the international level to three times the level of previous years. At the end of the second millennium, the revenue from international tourism will exceed $400 billion. The large number of tourist-related activities, particularly on beaches, has already engendered dangerous environmental problems for littorals. Irresponsible use of land and disposal of waste water into the seas has increased awareness that something must be done.

Egypt, in conjunction with other Arab states, has been active in raising cognition of the potential damage of an escalating tourist industry. It has participated in regional and international programmes for protecting sea waters, including the Mediterranean, Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba protocols. Other programmes include a plan for the protection of the maritime environment of the Gulf states and an emergency programme for the prevention of oil leakage accidents.

Promoting tourism along Arab coastal areas has both positive and negative effects on the human environment. On one hand, it extends the benefits of civilisation bringing with it protection for beaches, wildlife and scenic and historic sites. But, on the other, human infiltration can cause the deterioration of natural resources, as it already has at resorts like Al-Hammamat in Tunisia and the coasts of southern Sinai -- even as far inland as the Monastery of Saint Catherine.

Coastal tourism is extremely popular and profitable for Egypt but it is the cause of injury to coral reefs and other aquatic wildlife with pollution of the sea from waste water disposal, particularly during the height of the tourist season. Several Mediterranean countries, including Italy, Greece and France, were compelled to temporarily close down some of their beaches due to the unfit quality of their waters for bathing purposes.


NGO members are cleaning up a beach in Hurghada

Magdy Allam, chairman of the Arab Union for Youth and the Environment, estimates the population of Egyptian coastal regions to be around eight million persons living up to 60 km inland. "Present estimates indicate that more than 15 million Egyptians will be living in the areas falling under effect of the sea by the year 2000," he said. Furthermore, the coastal areas comprise more than 40 per cent of the Egyptian industries and are undergoing intensive urban and tourist development, not to mention activities involving land reclamation, irrigation, infrastructure works and the construction of ports. Such activities have adversely affected sea waters, particularly the Red Sea.

Speaking about the effects of tourism, representatives of different countries talked about their own environments and highlighted difficulties prevalent in all coastal regions. For example, Ibrahim Ibn Abdel-Hamid Alem, secretary general of the Saudi Association for the Environment, said that entertainment activities all along the inland areas of the Saudi coastline have endangered some of the islands and coral reefs there, especially near Jeddah and Yanbu. The executive manager of the Jordan Royal Ecological Diving Society, Nedal El-Horany, said that while tourism in the Gulf of Aqaba is considered a source of invaluable capital for his country, the irresponsible behaviour by tourists and divers has resulted in a dire need for a programme of protection and management of the area.

At the youth conference, El-Nazer urged Arab youth to aid the development of the nation's beaches and offshore resources with environmental concerns in mind. He asked them to propagate the call for "environmental tourism" in all Arab countries and stressed the necessity of applying this concept by establishing associations and forming scientific youth groups to address the environmental issues raised by heavy tourism on beaches and coasts.

In turn, Allam called upon the Arab governments to find and implement a common strategy for the protection of the Red Sea. Allam stressed the need for "continuous dialogue" between governmental, public and private sectors that takes into consideration non-governmental organisations, such as youth associations and syndicates. He added that funds for this type of programme should be established by the countries concerned and further funds can be raised by an additional fee of one dollar on each air and ship travel ticket to the Red Sea.

Allam called for the establishment of a geographical environment database to explain the ecological system and the development activities on the Red Sea. He also called for a programme similar to that of the Mediterranean cities' METAP (Mediterranean Environmental Technical Assistance Programme) and another for protected areas of the Red Sea. Finally, he advocated the founding of a "Red Sea Youth Club" in each city and town lying along the coastline.

Sea captain Mustafa Hosny Taher said that increased tourist interest in scuba diving had led to competitive efforts to provide diving services. Hotels, villages and even restaurants maintain private centres "often run by people who are not qualified for the responsibilities involved". He said that new tourist sports activities have emerged without any constraints and he mentioned in particular the damage caused by tourist launches operated for diving, fishing or simply boat-riding. These boats function without complying with the required safety regulations or any proper technical restrictions. Considering the amount of non-qualified labour incapable of dealing with the dangers at sea -- much less of implementing the simplest rules of environmental protection -- the threats to nature become immeasurable. Taher suggested that diving spots should be officially declared and identified on a map, underscoring the need for special permits for access to them. He said that without these most elementary of restrictions, it is impossible to ensure proper control over delicate natural reserves or safeguard the environment, and indeed, public security.

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