As plans finally get underway to make Sharm el-Sheikh carbon neutral by 2020, the Egyptian ministry of tourism says its country is moving towards a green future.
All has not been well of late in Sharm el-Sheikh; the 35,000-strong city on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula regarded as the jewel in the crown of Egyptian tourism. After a series of shark attacks in late 2010, in which an elderly woman was killed and four snorkelers injured, the uprising against president Hosni Mubarak in 2011 provoked further unrest among its visitors. It did elsewhere in Egypt too, with the number of tourists visiting the country falling by a third that year. Although Egypt has started to reclaim some of its popularity from 2010, when it welcomed 14.5 million visitors, the sector is still in recovery mode.
Casting a look at the idyll of Sharm el-Sheikh, such dramatic events were always required to justify an exodus. The long stretches of natural beaches, the lively nightclubs along the coastline and the luxurious resorts overlooking the sea have attracted tourists for decades. Yet despite such facilities it is above all an Eldorado for scuba divers, who treasure the year-round pleasant temperatures, the calm waters, the vast coral reefs and the exotic, lavish marine life.
It is this among other things that the Egyptian government is aiming to preserve with its ambitious $238million project to make Sharm el-Sheikh completely carbon neutral by 2020. The plans, which were initially agreed upon in 2010 but delayed by the uprising, centre on introducing facilities for solar power, cutting water consumption, improving the waste management system and, obviously, reducing carbon emissions. The firmest sign of concrete action has been an agreement on a protocol earlier this year, signed by the Egyptian ministries for environment and tourism, as well as the Governor of South Sinai, Khaled Fouda.
“[The project] was delayed because of the situation with the revolution but is now back on track,” says Hisham Zaazou, Egypt’s minister of tourism, who was appointed to the post in August. “Very soon we will start on the mooring system and the biodiversity aspect for our divers to come over and enjoy a better quality diving experience. This will all take place in the coming two months. It will take maybe two or three months to complete and then we can celebrate the start of the project.”
Such plans are not only environmentally sensible, but economically rational too. The strategy of prioritising the diving sites reflects what brings the most investment to Sharm el-Sheikh – scuba divers – with many having complained that their prized coral reefs were deteriorating due to dust blowing into the water from the construction of concrete hotel complexes near the coastline. On a national scale, there is also a growing realisation that tourism will become an increasingly important cornerstone in the country’s fiscal future. The industry is estimated to account for one out of seven jobs, and stood for 10 per cent of Egypt’s economy at its height before the uprising in 2010.
The sector is already showing signs of improvement, with the numbers for the first five months of 2012 signalling a 29 per cent rise in international tourists from the previous year’s dismal showing. There is also growing investment in the industry, as the tourism ministry is moving to reassure visitors that Egypt is safe despite the incidents of recent years.
But bolstering the sector’s capacity means nothing if you cannot sustain it. With Sharm el-Sheikh, the idea that if the renewable energy projects can work there, they can be replicated elsewhere in Egypt too. “The way forward for the development of tourism into Egypt is moving green,” Zaazou says. “The traveller, both now and in the future, will be asking not only for the price of the package but also for the carbon footprint, and if this specific product is well kept by the operators. So the way forward is green and eco and accordingly we need to give it a lot attention in the coming years.”
One crucial factor in that aim may be the optimisation of Egypt’s vast solar power potential. In fact, Zaazou indicates there will be efforts to install solar energy facilities in hotels nationwide, adding that he is planning for his country to be able to accommodate 30 million tourists by 2017 – which is more than twice as many as today’s visitors. That may sound ambitious, but for a country that appears to have realised that the only way towards a financially self-sustainable tourism sector goes through sustainable measures, perhaps it deserves to be achieved.
Photos: Oshchepkov Dmitry, Rich Carey, Eric Gevaert [all via Shutterstock.com].