Ecotourism is getting a lot of attention now, but just how significant of a force is the budding industry in Egypt? Armed with a wealth of natural attractions scattered across three deserts, two seas and the Nile Delta, Egypt is ripe with options for more sustainable travel. The government has in recent years started speaking about the importance of better nurturing Egypt’s ecotourism attractions in its strategy to revive the tourism industry at large. And while there have been some efforts made in that regard, operators say a few fundamental hurdles still stand in the way of fully realizing that potential. So what is the state of ecotourism at the moment and just how much is being done to support the transition to sustainable travel?
Pinpointing the exact size of Egypt’s ecotourism industry is tricky, in large part because what counts as “ecotourism” isn’t clear. There are general principles: Minimizing harmful environmental impact, maintaining natural areas, and protecting indigenous culture are all core components of this kind of travel. But as far as concrete certifications are concerned, there are no unified rules and regulations, meaning operators are the ones left to decide exactly how ecologically sound their practices should be.
In Egypt, ecotourism generally refers to lower-carbon accommodation like eco-lodges and camping that are situated in the country’s many natural protectorates. For Basata — one of the oldest eco-lodges and campsites in Sinai — ecotourism means using fresh water sparingly, sorting trash and engaging with the local community. “We use a dual plumbing system where saltwater is used for toilets and cleaning activities and fresh water for our showers,” founder Sherif El Ghamrawy tells Enterprise. A portion of their food waste goes to feeding livestock and whatever remains is used to manufacture mud bricks on site, which they use to build new structures.
In Siwa, the guiding philosophy is similar. “Creating a sustainable travel destination consists of three main pillars: Respecting natural heritage, reviving cultural heritage and engaging the local community in heritage conservation,” Dr. Mounir Naemattalla, founder of luxury ecolodge Adrere Amellal and sustainable development consultancy EQI, tells us.
Local operators insist that the interest is there: “I think people want to experience nature and stay in eco-lodges but there currently aren’t enough,” Ghamrawy says. Eco-lodges and “semi-eco lodging” — as Ghamrawy described some of the campsites between Nuweiba and Taba — actually attract more visitors than hotels in the area do, he explained.
And official figures suggest a rising appreciation of Egypt’s natural beauty: Some 1.1 mn tourists visited protected areas between 2018 and 2021, a figure that was 5x greater than what the Environment Ministry had anticipated. In FY2019-2020, ticket sales at these sites reportedly generated revenues of EGP 30 mn, more than triple the sum in the four fiscal years prior.
This is part of a global trend: The global ecotourism industry in 2019 was estimated to be worth USD 181.1 bn in 2019, and is projected to reach USD 333.8 bn by 2027. Ecotourism in Africa alone is now worth some USD 29 bn a year employing 3.6 mn people, and is crucial to conservation and economic development efforts in remote parts of the region.
What has the government done so far to support ecotourism? Over the past two years the government has started to speak publicly about the importance of better utilizing our natural resources for tourist activities. The Environment Ministry earlier this year launched an ecotourism campaign, dubbed Eco Egypt, to promote 13 of the country’s 30 nature reserves. Maintaining the health of natural reserves is one of the ministry’s top priorities at the moment, Tamer Kamal El Din, General Manager of Red Sea Protectorates at the Environment Ministry tells us. More specifically, the ministry has been working on developing a new system for accurately logging and studying ecosystems’ health, constructing dams in flood zones like Wadi Degla, installing buoys at popular dive sites and building bird-watching towers in Sharm El Sheikh.
What more can be done to support the industry? Putting in place clear rules that specifically govern the activities of companies in the ecotourism space would be a good start, says Ghamrawy. These include regulations on things such as how close to the coastline they can construct buildings, what materials to use and how to organize trips for guests. He adds that he is currently working alongside a number of operators on drafting a set of guidelines for how to run ecologically sound tourism businesses.
A little help for SMEs: Making it easier to register ecotourism-focused SMEs would really encourage a lot more activity too, Ghamrawy says. For some groups running low-capital operations like guided trekking tours in the mountains and wadis of South Sinai, the barrier to entry can be overwhelming. “It doesn’t make much sense to be governed by the same rules that large tourism operations are bound by,” Ghamrawy says. Shifting these rules would jive perfectly with the government’s policy of supporting SMEs, he said.
Opening up the outdoors: Easier access to nature would be a huge leap in supporting the industry, Wael Abed, who owns Al Tarfa Desert Sanctuary at the Dakhla Oasis in New Valley, tells us. Wadis and outdoor locations not designated as protectorates often see restricted access due to heightened security concerns in remote regions. Making it easier for visitors to access these locations would be a huge boost for the industry, both Ghamrawy and Abed agree.
Awareness campaigns on sustainability and environmentally sound development are at the forefront of Naemattalla’s concern, he tells us.
More private sector involvement with natural protectorates could be on the horizon. Protectorates are technically public land, which means they can’t be sold to private entities, but granting operation rights for limited time periods are currently on the books, says Kamal El Din. Environment Ministry proposals have long pushed for legislation to allow private companies to manage protected areas, similar to how Orascom Development won rights to manage the Pyramids Plateau. But so far there hasn’t been much happening on that front. The first steps towards private-sector involvement in nature reserves took place earlier this year with the introduction of a privately owned “Bedouin Tent,” at the Petrified Forest protectorate in New Cairo.
And it doesn’t necessarily have to be driven by altruism. Investing in ecotourism doesn’t always need to be a philanthropic endeavour, Naemattalla explains. “Any new product done well has a great chance for success. A commitment to sustainability is one of the most powerful forms of branding for a country, a region or an enterprise,” he says.
While there’s still a lot to be done to better support ecotourism, creating a thriving and sustainable industry will depend mostly on larger global trends like the resumption of global air travel and more visitors entering the country. What is clear though is that the way to better ensure visitors and operators commit to sustainable travel will likely require more than just promotional campaigns.
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