Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 February 2008
Issue No. 883
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Aqaba -- not to be compared

Although Petra is the most celebrated and attractive site in Jordan, Aqaba is right behind. Mahmoud Bakr visits the city and monitors its emergence as a major tourist destination

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A view of Saray Al-Aqaba tourist project; Al-Aqaba coast; villas of Saray Al-Aqaba; cafés overlooking the Gulf of Aqaba in Jordan

The Special Economic Zone -- this is how Jordanians refer to Aqaba these days. The city bordering a waterway bearing its name right at the northern tip of the Red Sea is sleepy no more. Aqaba is gearing up for a surge in commercial, industrial and tourist development. And it is only a stone's throw away from Egyptian shores, or at least it would seem so. Actually, the trip across the Gulf of Aqaba ended up being shorter than the time you spend these days going from Midan Lebnan to Roxy.

Friends and I started out at the Turgoman bus terminal in downtown Cairo and six hours later we were in Nuweiba, the Egyptian port on the Gulf of Aqaba from which we intended to take a ferryboat to Aqaba. Upon arrival, we learned that we had two options. We can skip the large but slow ferryboat altogether and take a speedboat, smaller and more fun. The speedboat was only slightly more expensive than the ferryboat and took us in 45 minutes to Aqaba.

I am in Jordan on an official mission, representing the Arab Union for Youth and Environment at a conference on climate change and its impact on marine life, organised by the Royal Union for Sea Sports.

This was not my first visit to Aqaba. I come to this city almost every year and usually stay at the Al-Husayn Youth Camp, an expansive facility situated on a hilly part of town, affording a view of Taba on the Egyptian side of the gulf. How closer to home can you get? The sense of proximity is enhanced by the triple-band roaming service on our cell phones, but don't make too many of those expensive phone calls. There is another way to call Cairo, but more of that later. The camp is delightful, with independent chalets as well as well-furnished rooms. Aside from the fairly reliable kitchen, we had the use of conference rooms, sports facilities and landscaped gardens.

Aqaba offers a wide range of things to do for relaxation and adventure. The surrounding desert with its rocky pink mountains reminds me of Lawrence of Arabia for more than one reason, the most important being that the film was mostly shot here. You can go scuba diving, parasailing, snorkelling, and water skiing in the pristine and not very cold water, even in winter. You can also lounge on the sandy beaches, admiring the sea and surrounding mountains as they change colour every hour or so.

I am already planning the perfect day. That would start with a morning of sunbathing and swimming on the Aqabawi beach, followed by tea at sunset in Al-Ghandour Café. There, the sense of homecoming is complete, for most of the workers are Egyptians. And most of the customers have taken off their shoes and dipped their toes in the cool water as they dragged on their narjila and sipped mint tea. As the darkness sets, a scene of glittering lights evolves across the water: Eilat on your right and Taba just across.

The conference organisers included Wadi Rum in our itinerary: a full day excursion to the moon-like landscape where the air is crisp and the desert puts you slowly in a trance. For those into hiking and mountain climbing, Wadi Rum, 40km from Aqaba, offers some of the highest mountain peaks in the region. At night, the Bedouin dinner you've been waiting for is ready. Candle lights, handmade carpets, star- studded skies and lamb and rice. Four- wheel drives would bring most people here, but camel safaris are also available for those with time on their hands. The local tribes offer tents for rent by the night.

The 50 of us, delegates from 14 Arab countries, need to unwind after days of discussing climate change. We've exchanged our normal surroundings, the air-conditioned hallways and conference rooms, for carpets on the sand. Our dinner is being cooked nearby. The scent wafts in the desert air, smoke from the campfire, and something else. Although quite popular in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, mansaf has not made it to the usual gastronomic fare in Cairo. Lamb bits are cooked in a sizeable pan over rice mixed with nuts and soaked in milk, but not any milk. The milk from Karak (of crusaders fame) gives the best flavour, says the local chef.

Aqaba, the next day, is déjà vu. It reminds me of Port Said of yesterday, a free trade zone filled with imported Asian items as well as local Jordanian handicraft. It looks like nine out of 10 merchants are Egyptian. Even the shop from which I buy most of my gifts for rock-bottom prices is called Al-Masri. At the top part of a hilly street, I find a crowd of Egyptian young men, standing shoulder to shoulder and talking on their cell phones. It turns out that this particular spot picks up reception from an Egyptian mobile phone company. So the calls they're making to their friends in Egypt are local calls, cheaper than roaming.

Jordanian officials are aware of the consequences of unbridled growth. So while promoting tourism and commerce in the city, they are keeping an eye on the environmental consequences. The waterfront is, of course, lined with hotels, but Hosni Abu Gheida, chairman of the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Commission, tells Al-Ahram Weekly that not one hotel in Aqaba has more than 150 rooms. The expanding harbour is surrounded with palm groves and sandstone hills.

The Jordanians are particularly proud of their coral reef which attracts tourists from around the world. Abu Gheida says there are more than 140 types of coral for snorkellers and divers to explore right off the beach. Those who want to stay dry while watching the colourful fish can also take a tour in a glass-bottom boat. On 14 November every year, the birthday of the late King Hussein, Aqaba organises a sea sports festival.

For history enthusiasts, there is much to see around the city. One particular destination is the Aqaba Castle, built by Egypt's penultimate Mameluke leader, Qansuh Al-Ghuri. Also nearby are the ruins of the Islamic city of Aylah. And don't forget to see the house of Sherif Hussein, leader of the Arab revolt of Word War I, now a museum.

Aqaba has some of the best fish restaurants I have seen anywhere, another similarity with Port Said. I had dinner at the Ali Baba Restaurant with a group of friends at the invitation of the Egyptian consul to Aqaba. The diplomat was instantly recognised by the Egyptian workers and some of the customers as well, so we all felt like celebrities.

The city has an excellent road system, a modern airport, and up-to-date phone and Internet connections. I am told that currently it has over 40 hotels, 20 upscale restaurants, 50 gift shops, 35 tourist agencies, 60 glass boats, 12 car rental offices, six diving centres, a maritime science station, a maritime life museum, a club for thoroughbred Arab horses, and several sport clubs. The numbers keep increasing.

New projects are expected to draw up to $5 billion in investment within the next two or three years. One project, Saraya Al-Aqaba, sounds like a Gouna- style development. It involves the creation of a city with historic architecture around a lake 1.5km long. The Saraya will feature luxury hotels and residence, a history-inspired market, and various entertainment facilities. Shadi Al-Majali, in charge of the new resort, says it will cover 617,000 metres and cost nearly $2 billion. Work in Saraya Al-Aqaba started in early 2006 and is expected to finish by late 2009. The architecture would be inspired by Arab aesthetics, but the facilities would be all up-to-date, says Al-Majali. So if you're looking for a summer home in a historic land that saw Arabs, Romans, Crusaders and Ottomans all vying for power, money, and fame -- here's your chance.

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