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Fri 25 Feb 2011 11:49 AM

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Egypt’s eco warrior

The senior assistant to Egypt’s Minister of Tourism, Hisham Zaazou, tells Monika Grzesik about a pioneering new project to reverse the degradation of natural resources in Egypt

Egypt’s eco warrior
Assistant to the Tourism Minister, Hisham Zaazou

Tourism is something of a double-edged sword when it comes to the natural environment. The more incredible or awe-inspiring the destination, the greater amount of tourists will flock to discover it, and as a consequence, 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 over the past 20 years has come at a massive cost. Today, 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 states, “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 of the future, the Tourism 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 for others to follow.

Zaazou explains that the ‘Green Sharm Initiative’ has evolved out of the need to balance conservation needs with tourism promotion.

“Egypt had an accelerated number of visitors coming into the destination every year, and while that had a positive effect on the economy it had a negative effect on our resources. We can’t stop people from coming as we need them to spend money in the country,” says Zaazou.

“But at the same time, how can we balance between protecting our environment and sustaining the growth of tourism to Egypt? This project is about how to balance between the ever-increasing numbers of people that want to visit and taking care of what you have. That’s our challenge.”

Egypt wants to be the first country in the Middle East and North Africa to “transform a leading touristic city into a world class green destination”.

The scheme lays out ambitious targets in waste reduction, emissions reduction, water-use reduction and protection of the area’s biodiversity to be reached by 2020 - including a 36% reduction in carbon emissions.

According to Zaazou, 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 including 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,” says Zaazou.

“We have picked Sharm el Sheikh as a model destination and once this is successful we will replicate it in other touristic cities. These five areas are already geared up to join the initiative, and we won’t wait 10 years before we replicate this project in these areas.

“They will be making the transformation in parallel and then we can claim that Egypt as a tourist destination is green.”

Greening Sharm

It’s an ambitious project and plenty of 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, built using old building codes.

“Regarding the hotels we decided that little things can be done that will make a big difference - for example, changing the light bulbs to energy saving will make a big difference in reducing emissions.

“[We will be] creating awareness programmes for the guests to use less towels, and using detergents that have less of an impact on the environment.”

Protection of the marine habitats around Sharm el Sheikh will form a major pillar of the project - many of the coral reefs in the area now are in a sadly decaying state thanks to waste from the hotel industry and destruction by tourists.

“Regarding the biodiversity there has been degradation because of the numbers coming here to swim. 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 in that respect and have a programme for that,” Zaazou says.

The target is to reduce degradation by 5% every year. One idea is to earmark ‘zones’ in the sea 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,” he adds.

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

“There will be no cars - just eco-friendly or emission-free public transport. In the next five or six years I believe we will have zones, so in the downtown area you will only be able to commute using electrical coaches and cars. Your own regular car will come into the city and stop at a certain point where you will only be able to use eco-friendly transport. We will use electric buses for public transport and 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” of the initiative will be felt by tourists in the “next two to three years.”

He is already looking ahead to the next project and the challenges that will come with it. The plan to green Luxor - which has one of the world’s greatest concentrations of ancient monuments - will revolve around how to prevent further degradation of Egypt’s national treasures. Zaazou says the Ministry is willing to take strong action.

“The challenge is we have a lot of people coming to see these monuments and we need to regulate this - we have monuments or tombs that are affected by water vapour because of the numbers of people that are visiting at the same time.”

Rather than cutting down on visitor numbers, Zaazou suggests the problem could be addressed in an “intelligent way” - for example by extending visitor hours and spreading the density of visitors; or even making exact replicas of the tombs and offering tourists a choice.

“People will have a choice either to pay top dollar and be among the very limited few that enters the real thing or pay less and see a replica of the tomb. But yes, some tombs will have to be closed down - the challenge is big,” he admits.

He adds that tourists of today have a growing concern in the environment, which must be met by the destination.

“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 repeat travellers 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.

“Because of this shift, if we do not move in that direction we will be losing that competitive edge because other destinations down the road will be taking care of the environment - so it’s a matter of economical need in that respect.”

Investing in the future

It will be interesting to see the impact of the Green Sharm Initiative in 10 years time - it remains to be seen whether by 2020 cars will be banned in the city centre, hotels will run on solar power and Sharm will be a model of green living.

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 among 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 train and create awareness within Egypt, and for the other parts of the government to help us chip in.

“Some people know it’s important, others say - ‘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.”

Indeed, the move towards ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘green’ travel signals a major shift in strategy and direction for Egypt, which has always had a reputation as something of a cheap and cheerful mass tourism destination. Zaazou agrees that the plan is to aim for more sophisticated, higher spending travellers for the destination.

“We have a good base of travellers coming into Egypt. But now we are looking into retaining that traveller and trying to attract the high-end, sophisticated traveller that is environmentally conscious - the eco-traveller that is looking for pristine environments and destinations that are taking care of their habitats.

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

“I think there is a change in the mindset in Egypt and it’s moving towards the ideas of green and sustainability. I’m very passionate about it myself,” adds Zaazou.

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