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Sun 6 Feb 2011 12:00 AM

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Egypt’s eco-warrior

Hisham Zaazou, senior assistant to Egypt’s tourism minister tells ATN about a pioneering new eco-tourism project in Sharm el Sheikh which aims to reverse the degradation of its natural resources.

Egypt’s eco-warrior
Hisham Zaazou at World Green Tourism event in Abu Dhabi.

Tourism is something of a double-edged sword when it comes to the natural environment. The more incredible or awe-inspiring the destination, the more the numbers will flock to discover it, and the more the natural environment comes under threat from volumes of people.

Nowhere does this seem truer than in Egypt, where the rapid explosion of the tourism sector has come at a massive cost. Today, too many visitors are destroying what they’ve come to see - and both man-made and natural attractions, from the once pristine marine habitats of the Red Sea, to many of the country’s ancient monuments - are sadly decaying and dangerously in peril.

At the World Green Tourism event in Abu Dhabi last November, Hisham Zaazou, senior assistant to Egypt’s minister of tourism spoke passionately about the need to “save the resources that we have in Egypt for many generations to come.” “If we don’t do anything,” he stated, “one day we may lose even the great pyramids, because the congestion is humongous. It will be a crime if we sabotage them.”

In a bid to stem this tide of destruction, and to re-brand Egypt as a green tourism destination, the ministry has launched a pioneering new project - the ‘Green Sharm Initiative’ - which will transform the Red Sea hot spot of Sharm El Sheikh into a model of eco-tourism.

Egypt aims to be the first country in the MENA region to “transform a leading touristic city into a world class green destination,” explains Zaazou. The scheme lays out ambitious targets in waste, emissions, water-use reduction and protection of the area’s biodiversity to be reached by 2020 - including a 36% reduction in carbon emissions.

The ministry is investing US$ 276 million (1.6 billion EGP) in the initiative - 52% of which will come from the government and international donations and the rest from private initiatives.

“We have already spoken with the banking sector in Egypt and both the international and local banks are willing to finance the transformation for hotels and for the transportation companies,” says Zaazou.

And Sharm el Sheikh is just the beginning. Eventually the project will be rolled out across all major tourist areas in Egypt, with Luxor, Hurghada, Alexandria, the Mediterranean coast and Aswan and the Western desert already in line for a ‘green-over’.

“What we are embarking on is a massive project in Egypt in terms of going green. These five areas are already geared up to join the initiative. They will all parallel be making the transformation and then we can claim that Egypt as a touristic destination is green.”

Greening Sharm

It’s an ambitious project and plentiful challenges lie ahead. Zaazou says one of the toughest will be persuading the burgeoning hotel sector in Sharm el Sheikh to increase efficiency and cut emissions. There are currently around 45,000 rooms in operation.

“Little things can be done that will make a big difference - for example, changing the light bulbs to energy saving,  creating awareness programmes for guests to use less towels, and using detergents that have less of an impact on the environment.”

Protection of the marine habitats will form a major pillar of the project - many of the coral reefs in the area are now in a decaying state thanks to waste from the hotel industry and destruction by tourists. “There has been degradation because of the numbers coming here to swim,” says Zaazou. “People throw trash in the water - some of them do not know that they can’t touch the reefs and they harm it, so we need to give much more attention to that.”

The target is to reduce degradation by 5% every year. One idea is to earmark ‘zones’ for swimming. “Areas that are really in danger we will make only for really professional divers because they know how to take care of the environment, and have no-go areas for novice divers or snorkellers. It’s about thinking out of the box in this way.”

Transport in Sharm el Sheikh will also receive an overhaul, with only eco-friendly forms of transport allowed in the city central in years to come.

“There will be no cars - just eco-friendly or emission free public transport. In the next five or six years in the downtown area you will only be able to commute using electrical coaches and cars. Your own regular car will stop at a certain point. We will also issue decrees to use a specific kind of fuel.”

A greener Egypt

While the green targets for Sharm el Sheikh are set over a 10 year period, Zaazou estimates that the “first effects” will be felt by tourists in the “next two to three years.”

Banning cars, asking people to cut down on water and electricity, and controlling access to beaches is a bold undertaking, but Zaazou says the public is fully onboard with the scheme.

“It is ambitious,” he admits, “but people are happy to do this. They are willing to go the extra mile to take care of the environment.”  He adds consumers are growing increasingly concerned about their impact on the environment when they travel.

“We have discovered a seismic shift in the minds of travellers today - people are much more conscious about the environment and their carbon footprint.

“If you are a repeat traveller to Egypt, you don’t want to come back and see it in a worse condition than the first time you saw it. You want to enjoy it in a pristine condition.

“So if we do not move in that direction we will lose that competitive edge because other destinations down the road will take care of the environment - so it’s a matter of economical need in that respect.”

Investing in the future

Zaazou admits there are major challenges ahead to pushing the plan forward - not least the famous Egyptian beaurocracy and opponents within the Egyptian government itself - especially those who value the tourist dollar over the preservation of natural resources for the future.

“I have to be honest with you and say that’s the dilemma - we are introducing a new way of thinking and I wouldn’t say that the whole government is in agreement with that. There is a debate.

“The challenge is how to educate and create awareness within Egypt, and for other parts of the government to help us chip in.

“Some people know it’s important, others feel - what do you mean by going green?

“A lot of people do not understand. So awareness and education for the society on the receiving end as well as on the reporting end is the first challenge.”

The move towards ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘green’ travel certainly signals a major shift in strategy and direction for Egypt as a destination, which has always had a reputation as something of a cheap and cheerful mass tourism getaway.

Zaazou says that the plan going forward for the tourism sector is to aim for more sophisticated, higher spending travellers in the future.

“We have a good base of travellers coming into Egypt,” he says. “But now we are looking to retain that traveller and trying to attract the high-end traveller that is environmentally conscious.”

Special campaigns and promotions to promote Egypt as a ‘green destination’ will be rolled out in due course.

“I think there is a change in the mindset in Egypt and I think it’s moving towards the ideas of green and sustainability.

“I’m very passionate about it myself,” adds Zaazou.

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