By Adrian Chalker.
Last week, NPR featured a two part series on ecotourism in Egypt. If Egypt and ecology do not immediately conjure a natural association in your mind, you're not alone. Cairo is a large dusty, wonderful city, but not one that controls its emissions or restricts pollutants to any great degree. In a way, this is part of its charm - Cairo is a long way from our own homogenized cities. The Egyptian government has many faults, but pretending it is something it is not, is not one of them.
In the last decade, Egyptian tourism has grown exponentially. In 2006 tourism produced 7.6 billion dollars, and last year (2009), 12.6 billion. A majority of tourists travel on cruise boats, the largest source of pollution and low wage dependency on the Nile. The main tourist destinations are Cairo, Luxor and Aswan. Others popular destinations include the Red Sea towns of Sharm el Sheikh and Hurgada where there is wonderful coral for diving and snorkeling and beaches. Throughout these regions the large corporate hotels dominate - their head offices in New York or Zurich. This makes finding and supporting locally owned establishments and locally beneficial tourism often difficult if not impossible.
So when I heard Eco-tourism and Egypt in the same sentence on NPR, I was somewhat skeptical. There is neither the leisure time nor the infrastructure to transform Egypt into the western image of an ecologically neutral environment. In fact the investment and infrastructure in Egypt often work directly against ecological neutrality.
There is something new, however, in raising ecology as a development issue for the desert oases of El Kharga, El Dakhla, Farafra and Siwa, the region in which it is being fostered. Perhaps such a spark may be kept alive long enough to be fanned into a flame. For if ecology is to be brought into the decision making process of Egypt's government, it must be first established in the consciousness of the population as important and right.
The oases of Egypt's Western Desert are not yet inundated with tourism. Although regularly visited for decades (I was guiding regular groups through these oasis as far back as 1984), they are not yet over burdened as the rest of the country. Also, the population is not an urban one - the people are close to the soil, close to the seasons and crop rotations. The Egyptian government holds much hope for these oases as areas of arable farming and horticulture production, offering large tax incentives and other benefits for urbanized and skilled Egyptians to move there. If this population can be garnered to understand and inspired to support the ecologically sound development of tourism in the desert, it is not inconceivable that such an attitude might spread throughout the oases, which may become models for future ecological development, and even eventually lead to positive changes for the urban poor of Cairo. Well continue to support and encourage local tourism development with our partners and operators in Egypt.
You can visit and become immersed in Egypt's Western Desert on Wildland's comprehensive Egypt Explorer trips: Egypt Explorer Land and Egypt Explorer Cruise. If you're interested in more discussion about Egypt's fledgling eco-tourism industry and its prospects and challenges, please email me.