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Published on Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Can countries with unrest commit to eco-tourism aspirations?

With Egypt and Tunisia in difficulties what happens to their ecotourism

With countries across the Middle East - North Africa (MENA) region facing often fatal unrest like the current problems in Tunisia and Egypt, it seems rather frivolous to be thinking about the travel industry.  Writes Sarah Irving in Green Prophet

But with tourism a major earner for many Middle East & North African countries, the environmental impacts of international visitors isn"t an issue that is going to go away.

Earlier in January Morocco became the latest MENA state to announce that "sustainable tourism" is to become a key part of its national economic strategy. The government"s "Vision 2020′ plan includes a doubling of visitor numbers for Morocco, but also demands that this happens hand-in-hand with much better environmental standards. Buzzwords like "sustainable growth", "responsible custody of the environment" and "authentic social and cultural life" characterise the plans, and they focus on well-known destinations like Marrakech and the Mediterranean coast.

Morocco would seem well-placed to expand its sustainable tourism offer. Many of its higher-end tourism products emphasise authenticity - as with the Riad hotels which have become a feature of women"s and travel magazines over the last few years, and music festivals which also appear in the 2020 plan - and eco-tourism activities such as desert and mountain trekking, which would be enhanced by anticipated developments such as desert eco-lodges.

As Valere Tjolle, noted in Vision on Sustainable Tourism: "On recent visits it was pretty clear that Morocco has been really successful in high end/low numbers tourism and the wellness industry. Moreover the cultural events are quite superb."

However, he also raised the issue of Morocco"s mass tourism areas, such as resorts like Agadir, many of which were built with World Bank funding during the 1970s, and the potential difficulty of "greening" them. And, as reported on Green Prophet earlier this month, Morocco has also recently taken steps which would seem to run counter to its ecological aspirations.

Recently in the news for political unrest, Egypt is another MENA country struggling to balance mass tourism, quality smaller-scale travel markets, and environmental impacts. At the time of writing it seemed unclear whether the current Egyptian government would soon be in any position to honour recent commitments, but whoever is in power in a few months or years, they will still have major economic and environment questions to answer.

But in December Egypt"s tourism minister Zoheir Garrana also promised that his country would be taking steps to green its massive tourist industry, in the interests of the nation"s long-term well-being. At the United Nations Climate Change conference in Cancun, Garrana was quoted as saying that "If we don"t deal with tourism as if we"re in danger, we"ll lose."

Egyptian government data says that 12.5million foreign travelers visited Egypt in 2009, and international tourism arrivals rose by nearly 19% in August 2010 over the same period of the previous year. As one of the world"s top 20 tourist destination, tourism plays a huge part in Egypt"s economy. But the country"s infrastructure has some inherent contradictions when it comes to environmentally-friendly tourism, including the fact that many travel still enter via Cairo airport but then take short-hail flights to Sharm, Hurghada or other coastal resorts.

Perhaps surprisingly, the mass-tourism Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh was said to be the first in line for measures such as cuts to water consumption, waste reduction programmes and biodiversity protection initiatives. Red Sea sites such as Sharm and Taba rely heavily on the appeal of natural environments such as coral reefs to attract visitors, so it could be argued that eco-tourism measures are in their interests.

But with the analogy of turning a supertanker in mind, shifting the international chains and huge hotels of Sharm el-Sheikh into greener habits may be a huge, and lengthy, task. The challenge facing the Egyptian tourist industry is also emphasized by the fact that this isn"t the first time this type of plan has been announced.

In November 2008, at the UN World Travel Conference, Garrana declared that Sharm el-Sheikh wa slated to become Egypt"s first "carbon-neutral" holiday destination. An international consultancy firm was brought in to do a feasibility study. But given the scale of the task, how quickly can mass tourism results like Sharm really be moved beyond token initiatives like volunteer clean-up days?

Source: Sarah Irving Green Prophet

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