Eco-tourism: Paving the way for the future

Tourism is a vital pillar of the Egyptian economy. Hisham Zaazou, senior assistant to Egypt’s minister of tourism, pointed out the sector’s “exponential expansion“ since 1982. According to Zaazou, the number of tourists visiting Egypt jumped from 1.4 million in 1982 to 12.5 million in 2009. Revenue totals rose from US$300 million in 1982 to US$10.6 billion in 2009.

Egypt ranks 19th on the list of global tourist destinations and number one among Middle Eastern and African countries.

Citing the sector’s volatile nature, however, Tourism Minister Zoheir Garranah warned Egypt should not take its booming tourism industry for granted.

“I fear competition with other countries," he told Al-Masry Al-Youm. "If we don’t deal with tourism as if we’re in danger, we’ll lose."

To ensure the sector’s sustainable growth and mitigate its endemic instability, it is increasingly clear that Egypt needs to make the sector environmentally sound.

What measures must be adopted in order to accomplish this? For one, rather than relying on mass tourism as is currently the case, the industry should focus on eco-tourism as a sustainable alternative.

Eco-tourism typically involves travel to destinations where flora, fauna, and cultural heritage are the primary attraction while limiting the number of visitors in order to ensure environmental preservation. But the industry today relies largely on attracting tourists to our unique flora, fauna and historical sites without regulations on the number of visitors, fueling catastrophic environmental degradation.

The World Green Conference, held recently in Abu Dhabi, highlighted the importance of eco-tourism. The conference urged local, regional and international travel industries to prioritize sustainability in order to preserve the environment for future generations. Should industry players elect to disregard such calls, the environment will be lost and tourism as a whole stands in jeopardy.

“Green tourism is the new commercial reality,” Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon al-Nahyan, chairman of the the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), told the conference. This argument is supported by a recent survey in which 84 percent of 3400 respondents from the United Arab Emirates, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom acknowledged green tourism as either "important" or "very important" for the future.

During one conference session entitled "Formulating a National Green Tourism Strategy," governmental representatives from the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), Thailand, Egypt and the US, discussed the importance of formulating a national green tourism strategy balanced between investment, incentives and regulations.

"We recognized that setting green guidelines to sustain the resources within the tourism sector is the only option to ensure a bright future for the next generation,” Suraphon Svetasreni, governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, told the session.

Zaazou, while attending the World Green Conference as a representative of the Egyptian government, highlighted the country’s experience with the Green Sharm Initiative–the green tourism strategy for Sharm al-Sheikh. Sustainability advocates hope this paradigm is embraced to help foster substantive change in Egyptian green tourism policy.

Egypt's aims for Sharm al-Sheikh to be the first MENA country to "transform a leading touristic city into a world class green destination, while providing thriving socio-economic development opportunities to its community,” Zaazou said.

The Green Sharm Initiative targets reforms in emission, water supply, waste management and biodiversity by 2020. The aim is to reduce emissions by 36 percent while decreasing water use in existing hotels by 13 percent and 28 percent for new hotels. The initiative also targets water waste reduction in supply networks by 75 percent. In terms of waste management, the aim is to achieve level 3 in solid waste management best practice. Finally, biodiversity degradation should be reduced at an annual rate of 5 percent.

While this is indeed a step in the right direction, this initiative has yet to take effect. Implementation is slated to begin during the first-quarter of next year–that's if Egypt’s infamous bureaucratic hurdles do not stand in the way.

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