Ever since an airport opened near the south eastern Egyptian city of Marsa Alam in 2001, tourism into the area has been increasing – and in particular nature tourism. The area on the western coast of the Red Sea has become well known for its diving and marine sports potential, with unspoiled reefs and a rich diversity of marine life a distinctive draw card for visitors. There are also nature reserves inland, like the National Parks of Gebel Elba and Wadi Al Gimal.
Ever since an airport opened near the south eastern Egyptian city of Marsa Alam in 2001, tourism into the area has been increasing – and in particular nature tourism. The area on the western coast of the Red Sea has become well known for its diving and marine sports potential, with unspoiled reefs and a rich diversity of marine life a distinctive draw card for visitors. There are also nature reserves inland, like the National Parks of Gebel Elba and Wadi Al Gimal. However now it seems that unbridled nature tourism is killing off the duck that lays the golden egg – that is, the local nature.
Tourism is a double-edged sword, says local environmental expert, Ahmed Ali. The area’s biological diversity has attracted tourists, which brings money into the region and provides employment. But just as they did further up the coast in resorts like Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada, which the New York Times reported in 2007 were “overrun with tourists, the reefs teeming with as many divers as fish”, now the many visitors attracted here, with humans in and on top of the water, is endangering the area’s natural flora and fauna.
Ali says the larger vessels often anchor on the coral, which can destroy it and that boats are also washed down with detergents. The remnants of the cleaning fluids then float on the surface, which harms the dugong – a large marine mammal, sometimes called a sea cow, which was also thought to be mistaken for a mermaid in the past – and the turtles that draw so many tourists to the area. Both the dugongs and the turtles must surface in order to breathe and they ingest the pollutants on the ocean surface.
Ali is also highly critical of the unlicensed building of hotels and other resort buildings on Marsa Alam’s beaches and coastline. Environmental researcher and chief of Marsa Alam natural reserves, Ahmed Shawky, agrees that this is a problem. “A recent business plan for the area says that each reserve should allocate part of its territory to investment and economic development,” Shawky explains. “But this threatens the reserves’ natural resources.”
And it’s happening because of “the intervention of external parties in the reserves’ affairs,” Shawky argues. “Giving investors some of the reserves for hotels and resorts harms the environment and also contradicts my department’s goals and policies.”
But not everyone is unhappy with how things are going. After a troubled time for tourism after Egypt’s popular revolution in 2010, it is back on track in Marsa Alam. The Red Sea gets about 120,000 tourists every month, says one local travel agent, Khalid Mohammed, happily and about 15 percent of those are people interested in nature tourism, such as that offered in Marsa Alam.
It’s not tourism that’s destroying the environment, Mohammed insists. The deaths of some rare animals is due to unregulated and illegal hunting, he says. And he thinks in order to solve the problem, environmental protection agencies need to coordinate better with local tourism operators.
Meanwhile researcher Ali also has a plan. Basically he thinks that power needs to be decentralized in Marsa Alam so that local officials, who know the reserves well, can enforce protective laws, document the nature reserve borders as they see fit and allot resources and execute decisions as quickly and efficiently as needed. Until this happens, Ali says, the situation in Marsa Alam will not change.
As one study by a French association for the conservation of biodiversity, Tendua, pointed out about Marsa Alam’s dugongs that attract so many visitors: considering how many visitors come to Marsa Alam to see them, one could say that each dugong generated around US$18,000 worth of income in 2007. As the organization argued, surely that means it’s worth preserving the dugong’s habitat? After all, what’s the point of selling land for hotel rooms when there is nothing left for visitors to Marsa Alam to see?