Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 June 2012
Issue No. 1101
Travel
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Promoting ecotourism

On the occasion of the World Environment Day (5 June), which is the day that stimulates awareness of the environment and enhances political attention and public action, Minister of Environmental Affairs Mustafa Hussein speaks to Mahmoud Bakr about his ministry's strategy to preserve Egypt's rich natural heritage while guarding the balance between touristic needs and ecological sense

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Mustafa Hussein, the minister of environmental affairs

Mustafa Hussein, is the Egyptian Minister of Environmental Affairs who held pst in January 2012, born in Beni Suef, Hussein graduated with a B.Sc in Geology from Cairo University in 1981 and obtained his Ph.D in Geophysics eight years later from the Faculty of Science, Cairo University. Before holding post, Hussein has been Chairman of the Geophysics Department, Faculty of Science, Cairo University and director of Cairo University Centre for Combating Environmental Hazards and Basel Regional Centre for Training and Technology Transfer across the Arab region.

"Ecotourism at essence is a compromise between the human need to have fun and nature's need to recover," Minister of Environmental Affairs Mustafa Hussein told Al-Ahram Weekly. When you engage in ecotourism, "you minimise the damage to nature while engaging in a lifestyle that brings you closer to all the wonders nature can offer," he added.

Protecting biological diversity, explains the minister, is not only an environmental need, but rather "an economic imperative." Shedding the light on his ministry's plan, Hussein speaks of his intention to turn the spectacular Red Sea Resort of Sharm El-Sheikh into a green city, "not only to promote environmental stability but also to protect the local culture," he explains.

With ecotourism now controlling nearly 45 per cent of world tourism, Egypt is pouring money into green tourism with a view to promoting eco-lodges, clean energy, recycling, and biodiversity. Interest in ecotourism has picked up pace after some of the most popular tourism destinations began to show the wear and tear of excessive use, explains the minister.

Hussein further points out that 15 per cent of Egypt's total area has been turned into natural protectorates, and the country continues to add to the number of its natural protectorates, which is expected to reach 40 by 2017. In Sinai alone, there are seven protectorates - Ras Mohammad, St Catherine, Nabq, Abu Jallum, Ahrash, Zaraniq, and Taba ê" covering 14 per cent of Sinai's total area of 61,000 square kilometres.

The Ministry of Environment (MOE) has moreover set up local organisations to boost the income of Sinai inhabitants. One such organisation, Dahab Katrin (Catherine's Gold), focuses on the preservation of medicinal herbs. It has planted 6,000 types of endangered plants, recorded oral history pertinent to medicine, and created many jobs in the process.

Sinai is a treasure trove of corals, fish, migratory birds, and rare forms of life including the Sinai baton blue butterfly which can only be seen in St Catherine. In Zaraniq alone, there are 14 rare indigenous plant species. Egypt has also joined the Agreement on the Conservation of Cetaceans in the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and Contiguous Atlantic Area, or ACCOBAMS

With one million tourists visiting Sinai's protectorates every year, an activity that brings $24 million in income, the MOE grasps the need for a comprehensive strategy on green tourism. One aspect of its strategy is to focus on sustainable development for the local community. "This involves the creation of a legal and institutional framework, engaging the regional community in the activities of natural protectorates, turning protectorates into self-financing projects, and using revenue from protectorates to enhance infrastructure and train members of the local community," the minister says.

Other components of the ministry's strategy are to promote training, engage the community, and coordinate with the local authorities, asserted Minister Hussein.

Meanwhile, with Egypt and Saudi Arabia extending underwater cables from the Om Adou Valley in south Nabaq to boost their electricity grids, the MOE, points out the minister, is making sure that the project has no adverse ecological impact.

Ecotourism in Sinai includes a wide range of activities, from diving to safari trips, bird watching, medicinal herb development, fishing, building reservoirs, and regulated use of mineral resources. Development efforts for Sinai, as stated in the five-year plan starting 2012, include 32 projects in ecotourism, handicrafts, agriculture, mining, and fishing. "These are expected to generate nearly 8,000 jobs," says Hussein.

In North Sinai, current projects include an eco-lodge, a sustainable development centre, a water quality monitoring station, a scheme to promote fishing in Lake Bardaweel, as well as plans for quail breeding, water harvesting, rainwater agriculture, and bird watching. Projects for the control of sea pollution and the creation of an environmental "culture palace" are soon to begin in Al-Arish.

In St Catherine, efforts are underway to create a Bedouin eco-lodge, a centre for medicinal herbs research and marketing, a hotel, and a cable car for Al-Tur Mountain, as well as a service centre for mountain climbing. Environmental training centres and visitors' information facilities are planned for Ras Sidr, Nekhl, Nabq, and Abu Jalloum.

In Sharm El-Sheikh, an eco-lodge will be constructed in Al-Salam Park, and a museum for biodiversity is expected to open there soon.

Meanwhile, the visitors' centre in Ras Mohamed will undergo renovation and an eco-lodge and training centre for planting mangroves are also planned there. In Nuweiba and Al-Tur, agricultural training projects and projects for treating sewage water will start soon. According to MOE officials, the total cost of ecotourism development in Sinai is $43 million.

Minister Hussein says that his ministry has just created two new natural protectorates in Salloum and the Batahia Oasis. The MOE is also putting together a biological database and monitoring system while boosting ecotourism through legal measures, including a biological safety law.

In the Western Desert, the government continues to develop the world-class fossil site in Wadi Al-Hitan, or Valley of the Whales, just north of Lake Qaroun. Scientists have registered 150 additional fossil locations since the major discoveries of 2010, and hope to explore a fossilised forest in Jabal Elba.

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