We landed at Kharga Airport after a 75-minute flight from Cairo and hopped on a bus for two hours until we reached Dakhla Oasis. The primary aim of the trip was to attend a forum about sustainable tourism in Al-Wadi Al-Gadid (New Valley), but we wanted to visit as many attractions as possible in 48 hours. We were a group of over 100 who looked like they drank Red Bull for breakfast, running around from one place to the next trying desperately to visit as many sites as possible.
Al-Wadi Al-Gadid governorate represents 44 per cent of Egypt’s overall territories, and thus is enormous and rich with various landscapes and heritage. Visiting the governorate in 48 hours was like watching the trailer of an epic production; it whets your appetite for more and so I shall return to see how the story unfolds.
Forum organisers wanted to promote different lodges in Al-Wadi Al-Gadid so they divided our group among three different lodges, but we were able to visit them all at one point or other when we met for dinner or lunch. The first night, we had dinner at Desert Lodge which has a mesmerising view overlooking the old city of Al-Qasr. Perched over a small hill in total isolation and privacy for guests, the place was dimly lit at night and tables were set inside and outside to cater for all preferences. We had a four-course meal of Egyptian cuisine and the food was light and delectable.
I was staying at Al-Tarfa Lodge which was the best nature could offer; luxury with authentic ecological flare. I was a guest in Makam Al-Zein, a cosy suite named after the daughter of Wael Abed, the owner. Abed, one of the owners of Al-Tarfa, has an air of chivalry about him and the graciousness of a perfect host. The suite had everything I could hope for except a fireplace and, thankfully, no TV. A colleague was even luckier staying at a suite in Dar Hamza, named after Abed’s son. The suite exuded cosiness and comfort, with a large fireplace, making it a perfect love nest for honeymooners.
The walls of all buildings are covered with silt and Abed used palm fronds and wood beams for roofing, as well as brass chandeliers and appliqués for warm and soft lighting that soothes you after a long day.
Makam Al-Zein can be used for single or double accommodation and costs LE2,400 per night for Egyptians and foreign residents, including all meals and beverage, free access to the spa and one excursion per day. Dar Hamza, costs LE3,225 per night including all of the above.
Shanda Lodge, is a more budget-friendly option with spacious and nicely furnished rooms. Service and food are mediocre, however; a double room, which was the size of a suite, costs LE185 per night for accommodation only.
AL-BASHANDI: Unfortunately, we didn’t stay in any one place long enough to capture its essence. One of the most interesting was Al-Bashandi Village, a rural and primitive area with kind shy locals. Taking a stroll in the village, one sees remnants of old houses built with mud bricks and decorated with ethnic ornaments. Luckily, we got to see these homes before they slowly disintegrate and are replaced by ugly cement and red brick blocks that say nothing about the culture or heritage of the place.
The Association of Local Society Development (ALSD) is a success story in Al-Bashandi village; it is also considered the Everest of social development work everywhere in Egypt. During our visit to ALSD, we were briefed about the handmade carpet project for local women from Al-Bashandi, and watched the process starting from collecting sheep wool, transforming it into yarn, then women weaving on looms until the final product is hung beautifully in a show room in the same building.
Haj Abdel-Salam Senousi, who has been the head of the association for 34 years, explained that “the project is a full circle; we have a farm irrigated with fresh water wells where we raise sheep for wool,” he explained to Al-Ahram Weekly.
The water purification and desalination project is something else that has been in place for 11 years, financed by the Egyptian Swiss Fund for Development along with donations from locals. They planted a 20-acre wood forest irrigated with water of treated and purified sewage water.
THE OLD CITY OF AL-QASR: The City of Qasr, dating back to the Ayoubid period, with its dark mud walls has a mythical feel about it. I was hurried down its narrow alleyways and passages mesmerised by the whiff of mystery exuding from its walls and vaults. Every old door, every house has a story to tell. All my senses were engaged; I touched every door, smelling the dark mud that has a sweet incense smell infused in its walls. The clock was ticking and time was running out; we had to leave. If you are ever in Dakhla, don’t think twice about visiting Al-Qasr and allocate enough time to lose yourself in the labyrinth of its history.
THE FORUM: At the Niche Tourism Forum “The New Valley, Dates and its Biosphere Reserve from Ecotourism to Geotourism”, principal organiser Tarek Al-Baz explained to the Weekly that the aim is to use natural resources in promoting destinations. Al-Baz, chairperson of Mawared Foundation for Sustainable Development, an NGO, and consultant for UNESCO for agro-business supply chain, said the initiative is a partnership between Mawared and the Ministry of Tourism “to use natural resources as an attractive selling point for tourism”, he stated. In this initiative, partners include Al-Wadi Al-Gadid Governor Tarek Al-Mahdi and a local NGO from Al-Wadi Al-Gadid.
The aim is a small-scale experiment using natural resources in creative industries for women in the community. Later, this can be used as a touristic product to attract tourists and also promote Al-Wadi Al-Gadid. Over 100 people were invited to the forum, including UNESCO, USAID, NGOs, business entrepreneurs and international tourism consultants. “We are counting on them to share their knowledge and promote Al-Wadi Al-Gadid,” Al-Baz stated.
Keynote speakers talked about how to utilise Al-Wadi Al-Gadid natural resources and use them as selling points to attract tourists interested in cultural tourism. Yioula Papakyriacou, a tourism consultant from Cyprus, talked about gastronomy and how to use dates to create different local recipes. Susan Worwood, a naturopath, suggested making eco-beauty products from palm tree oil.
The initiative is a preliminary forum for the one-week New Valley Date Festival scheduled in May, and is sponsored by numerous partners including EgyptAir, the Ministry of Tourism, the Egyptian Tourist Authority, Escapade Travel Agency, and Al-Wadi Al-Gadid governorate. “The festival includes a week of workshops and activities native to Al-Wadi Al-Gadid and communities there,” explained Governor Al-Mahdi in his address. “We are talking about the people of Al-Wadi Al-Gadid as the heart of our product and interest.”
Also speaking at the forum was Jonathan Tourtellot, founder of the National Geographic Center for Sustainable Development who introduced the concept of Geotourism, or “tourism that sustains and enhances the geographical character of a place”. Tourtellot explained further to the Weekly that this means “the environment, heritage, culture, aesthetics, and most importantly wellbeing of the people living in the place.”
He continued: “I introduced this concept in an internal memo in 1997 in the National Geographic magazine. It was the first time it was even mentioned, but we didn’t go public until 2002. The reason I thought about this was because tourism became divorced from what the place is about, and in many parts of the world if you talk to economic developers they would say hotels, condos and golf courses are tourism. But that is recreation not tourism; tourists go and leave without having any idea about the culture of the place they just visited.”
Tourtellot added that all tourism should be sustainable, which means a tourist should have a good experience in a place 30 and 50 years from now, the same as they did today. “This doesn’t mean that the place shouldn’t change or evolve,” he noted. “It can do that without losing what is distinctive about it. In ecotourism we focus only on nature: wild life and natural habitat, but geotourism has a more holistic approach to tourism.”
Tourtellot warned that unsustainable tourism is destructive, which is why the word “unspoiled” is used as a selling point in tourism. He spoke of the potential for Al-Wadi Al-Gadid: “It’s a very rich place in history, archeology and agriculture. It also has a great desert variety, from white desert to black, and everything in between. I think the challenge here is how you can get there, but that can be an advantage too. I always said, a good place requires changing planes; once you can fly direct, the adventure isn’t complete. A lot of adventurers and geotourists also feel the same way.”
While there is no geotourism rating for different destinations, there is the Stewardship Survey where 200 to 400 experts are asked about places that can be explored in around one week. There are six different criteria such as tourism management, general outlook, environment, and cultural/social impact. Experts were asked to rate each place on a scale of 1-10. In 2010, Sharm El-Sheikh was included because the survey was about coasts and islands. It scored 38, beating Dubai by one point, but that wasn’t a good score; it was in the Costa del Sol range which had the lowest score of 31. While Spain might be booming economically, it’s a destination that doesn’t preserve itself on many levels.
In 2004 and 2006, experts reviewed Luxor and Giza Pyramids and their score was also very low. The survey stopped after funding dried up in 2010.
Tourtellot, who has worked for National Geographic for 31 years, has yet to write a story about Egypt. “I’m now interested in the New Valley and fascinated by Cairo’s grandeur and richness,” he said, and sympathised with Egypt and its struggle to attract tourism at the moment because of negative media coverage. “But media reports news is not the daily normal life of people,” he added. “If I have friends who want to visit I would tell them go ahead; the only danger is Cairo traffic — that would be my only warning.”
The 48-hour trip was almost over and with only a couple of hours left, I sought sanctuary in the safe haven of my lodge. There, I gathered with my newly acquired friends around the fireplace at Al-Tarfa lounge, nibbling on appetisers, slowly sipping our drinks, and making conversation.