Horror in Hurghada, Egypt Anatomy of an Eco-Holiday by Gordon Sillence
Tourism professionals also go on holiday sometimes, and Gordon Sillence, Executive Director of the DestiNet UN Type II Partnership for Sustainable Tourism, sees red in Egypt's Red Sea mass tourism destination of Hurghada …
Writes Gordon… This year we chose to have a family winter sun holiday in Hurghada, Egypt, partly in support of the Egyptian people suffering economically under political transformation, partly to escape the European weather and enjoy the Red Sea attractions of sun and beach, world class snorkelling, and the rich cultural history of Luxor and the scenic Nile valley. What we found was a Red Sea destination that is breaking almost all the sustainability rules you can imagine, with irresponsibility extending from government down to private companies and individuals on a scale that shows why we really need genuine sustainable and responsible tourism to become mainstream - urgently.
Four years ago in my professional capacity as a sustainable tourism consultant I was invited 100 km further north to El Gouna, a purpose-built showcase sustainable/responsible tourism resort development in the same sea-fronted desert area. Hurghada turned out to be the complete opposite - it's packaged up as Red Sea sun, sand, snorkelling and dive destination, but as usual you can't believe the trip-advised, booking.con e-brochure these days. Roll on the days of a genuine, internationally understandable destination monitoring and certification system … for now I would like to see the development of a SICKE destination label - Structurally Inadequate with a Completely Knackered Environment - so informed travellers can avoid places like this.
Giftun Island - Torture by mass nature
The entire destination has been developed by a bunch of once-lers whose legacy is, once again, the trashing of paradise through nature tourism. From the under-construction airport onwards, Hurghada appears at first as one endless unfinished building site, full of wind-blown rubbish. Our centrally-located hotel was surrounded by more plastic debris and unfinished hotel constructions (not seen from its website) all the way to alleged beach front, which has been completely artificially re-modeled, privatized and segmented, with no public access and no beach worth accessing anyway, with the water-line defined by floating rubbish, and a flotsam flotilla of dive boats cluttering the coastline view.
Over 700 dive boats ferry thousands of tourists on day trips promising underwater ecotourism adventure, but in fact they have completely devastated the coral reefs in the region, their propellers too close to the corals, mooring their anchors directly on the reef, and massing in ridiculous numbers. Giftun Island, once a Red Sea snorkelling paradise, now sees hundreds of unsuspecting tourists dumped on a windswept un-shaded desert island shoreline awash with smaller ferry boats, again churning the corals that used to be the islands' key attraction. I don't even want to mention the idiotic antics of the ignorant crew that replaced no attempt to provide environmental information to the luckless snorkelers on board.
There used to be a visitor fee collected by the park authorities, but since the revolution the army has stopped the marine park rangers collecting fees from the dive companies, and the dive boat crews have violently rebuffed ranger interventions in reef infringement incidents, so the under-resourced rangers have retreated, and corruption-ridden free enterprise rules the waves. HEPCA, the lone NGO in the area, is similarly ineffective here, though elsewhere it has introduced buoy mooring systems and supports coral reef research.
The final irony - beachfront offices of the environmental police
Onshore, a government land giveaway policy has led to a construction boom that was bust when it started - the land grab leaving unsightly blocks of aging first phase construction sites that will allegedly boost red sea bed capacity from 200,000 to 300,000 by 2020. Yet many of those hotels that are finished are operating at very low occupancy rates, turning to the low-cost budget markets of Russia and other eastern European states. These poorly-informed tourists have a reputation for snorkelling with vodka bottles and using Hurghada as a cheap exotic shopping destination - buying Egyptian-looking artefacts and fake luxury goods that are in fact mass-produced in China.
Mass tourism has given rise to a garrison of tourist shops and street vendor militias fleecing trapped tourists, hustling to make desperate sales using a bargaining system that starts at three times the real asking price and finishes with the most negative of inter-cultural market exchanges any inter-personal tourism experience can offer. This needlessly greedy behaviour starts at the airport where a currency trap ($15/!5 Euro/ £15/150 Egyptian Pound!) visa tax is sprung on unsuspecting international arrivals (you don't pay it at Cairo, Sharm-el Shiek or El Gouna airports). Having been mobbed by a series of taxi touts even before passport control and baggage collection, you get overcharged by the unmetered taxi drivers, ending up in either old or new Hurghada.
But it doesn't matter which one, though the new-built section of Hurghada does have its streets swept yet is as ersatz as it comes, a concrete high street void of any character and far from the coastline, whereas the downtown so-called beachfront area is at least coloured by Egyptian traders and the buzz of the street vendor hassle. Worse still, the entire town - old and new - is reliant on water deliveries and sewage collection by lorry, leaving a defining backdrop stench to the tourism visitor experience.
The only trees in Hurghada - from snorkelling paradise to a shopping hell
Some tourists may even notice the almost complete lack of Egyptian women and children here. You might see middle-eastern families with female members on holiday, but this is a classic tourism dormitory town, with male migrant workers coming from Luxor and Cairo to compete for the scarce tourism services jobs that do exist, then ganging up for their sidewalk sales scams. This creates an even darker undercurrent to the problematic, and it must be asked what will happen once the Hurghada tourist bubble bursts, as it surely must as the tourism industry itself migrates further south, then finally exits Egypt altogether (cf the rise of mass tourism in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Turkey, Tunisia, etc, on the horizon). Low paid labour - from construction to services - is the base of the entire tourism edifice, and it's clear that this is nowhere near the path of sustainability and responsible development that the People's Revolution requires.
A UK foreign office tourism warning was issued for Cairo and the Sharm-el Sheik area when we arrived on the 2nd anniversary of the revolution, so there's no chance of going north seeing the pyramids on this trip, though we did make a visit to the historic city of Luxor, which unfortunately suffers the same tourism hussle as Hurghada. Having been taken for a ride along with all the other unsuspecting sun sea and snorkelling eco-tourists who arrived here, my family and I are now moving further south in search of what the Red Sea really promises. The great shame is that Egypt really does have a lot to offer, and in this time of transition it is still a safe place to travel. But never to Hurghada again for me …
Next time I will be looking for solutions to the problems created by irresponsible mass tourism in Egypt, reporting from the Wadi el Gemal National Park, south of Marsa Alam, which may be Egypts' last Red Sea Desert Paradise …
See amazing new 2012 sustainable tourism report 90% off offer HERE
Tuesday, February 19, 2013