Nestled beside the turquoise waters of the Red Sea, Gouna is one of Egypt’s most picturesque tourist destinations.
The town’s modern-looking houses and hotels hug the shores of its artificial lagoons, and the earth-toned architecture only adds to its charm.
Driving into Gouna and past the town’s bike path, surf shops, international restaurants, bars and recycling bins one gets the feeling they have entered another world.
Quaint canals run through the town, and bridges connect its many islands and lagoons. But a closer look reveals that the water in some of the lagoons is filthy.
Gouna’s website proudly boasts that it is has been officially recognized as Egypt’s number one environmentally sustainable tourist destinations, though it doesn’t say by who. But, how sustainable is Gouna as a tourist destination?
Many people, mostly European tourists, visit Gouna for windsurfing, kite surfing, scuba diving and snorkeling. However, all of these activities take a toll on the Red Sea’s marine ecosystems, particularly its coral reefs, highlighting the tension between growing the tourism industry in Egypt and protecting the country’s natural environment.
Timur al-Hadidi, head of Orascom Development’s environment department, says that the company’s executive chairman of the board of directors and CEO, Samih Sawiris, originally conceived the concept and vision of Gouna as a sustainable tourist destination.
According to Hadidi, Orascom Development built Gouna, which was its flagship project, and has since developed similar tourist destinations in Taba Heights, as well as Morocco, Oman and Montenegro.
According to its website, Orascom promotes waste recycling plants, water desalination projects, water management systems, and planting projects with the aim of generating low waste in its environmentally friendly tourist destinations.
Indeed, Gouna has its own desalinization plant. But, the desalinization process has its own environmental drawbacks. According to Ahmed El Mogy, deputy head of the mechanical department at Al Amar Consulting Group, it takes 3.5 kilowatt-hours of energy to desalinate 1 cubic meter of water, which amounts to about US$0.65 in running cost.
However, Mogy says, “There’s no freshwater in the ground in Gouna so they either have to buy it from the government, or desalinate their water. I don’t really think they have any other options.”
The desalinization process also creates its own effluent called brine. The brine is very salty and when released back into the ocean can have a detrimental impact on the pH level of the water, harming coral reefs.
Yet Gouna’s website says the town has created a fish farm with the brine coming from its desalinization plant, which could minimize the harmful impact of the brine.
Gouna also has its own recycling plant.
“We have a very efficient and very good functioning recycling plant that could be a model for Egypt. It recycles about 85 percent of the waste of Gouna. We are very proud of that,” says Hadidi.
However, Gouna’s number one drive toward sustainability seems to lie primarily within the hotel industry.
In 2002, Orascom Development launched the Green Gouna initiative, which has since evolved into the Green Star Hotel Initiative. According to Orascom’s website, this means implementing an environmentally sustainable management system within the hotel industry in Gouna.
Hadidi says that many of the hotels in Gouna have solar water heaters, though he isn’t sure how many. In addition to that, he says, “All hotels in Gouna are green star certified, this is an international standard for labeling hotels.” He says Orascom spearheaded this effort.
An international company called Green Globe International issues the green star certification based on certain criteria that hotels must meet. Yet some environmental experts believe that the green star hotel initiative is not a serious initiative, and not enough to qualify Gouna as a truly sustainable tourist destination.
“Eco-friendly does sell, and they’re going to land themselves in a heap of trouble if they brand themselves as eco-friendly but they’re really not. This could affect their company worldwide, and could undermine their reputation. I hope they do really take the environment to heart,” says Mindy Baha al-Din, an environmentalist for the NGO Nature Conservation Egypt.
Yet the bigger problem with creating a truly sustainable tourist destination seems to be finding a balance between the number of tourists visiting Gouna, and the ability of the natural environment to handle them.
According to Amr Ali, managing director of the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association, the way to approach truly sustainable tourism is to “bring experts in and let them assess the carrying capacity of the natural resources of the area before you start to fill the area with mass tourism.”
Once that happens, “then you start to set your development plan, depending on the carrying capacity,” he says.
One example of how mass tourism beyond the environment’s carrying capacity can be detrimental is its impact on the coral reefs in the Red Sea.
The Egyptian coastline of the Red Sea has about 3,800 square kilometers of coral reef area, and two-thirds of the Red Sea’s 300 coral species are found in the Egyptian reefs, according to a 2012 article in the journal “Topics in Middle Eastern and African Economies.”
“There is a challenge in balancing tourism with protecting the Red Sea. We developed the Red Sea based on quantity rather than quality,” says Mahmoud Hanafy, chief scientist for HEPCA.
“Tourism in the Red Sea looks like a supermarket,” he adds. “All of our concern was focusing on the number of hotels and the number of tourists. The Egyptian government is taking only this into consideration to evaluate the tourism industry.”
To illustrate his point, Hanafy says that the marine ecosystem in the Red Sea can handle a carrying capacity of only 5,000 to 18,000 dives per year, although some sites see a diving rate of more than 200,000 a year.
Hanafy says that in 2009, there were nearly 40 million potentially damaging incidents of divers and snorkelers breaking or scratching the coral.
Preserving and protecting the health of Egypt’s coral reefs is not only important for sustaining Egypt’s tourism economy, but also for buffering the Red Sea coastline against waves, storms, and floods. Once they are damaged, their value is greatly diminished.
“There’s no unique vision for sustainable use of Red Sea resources. I consider this one of the huge challenges we are facing in the Red Sea. It’s very hard to talk about sustainability or sustainable development. Gouna can be a good model for development, but not for environment sustainability,” says Hanafy.
Nonetheless, some experts think Gouna is a good sustainable development model for Egypt’s tourism industry.
“The whole concept of how they developed Gouna is a clever concept. They are using a strict development concept. You have a church, you have a mosque, schools, hospitals, everything you need to develop a community,” says Ali, who added that Gouna’s construction caused a lot less destruction to the coastline and the reefs, unlike Hurghada.
Given the many challenges to creating a truly sustainable tourist destination, it might take time for Sawiris’ vision to fully manifest.
“There is always room to improve,” says Hadidi. He says that Orascom Development wants to use more and more green energy, which is not widely available in Egypt now.
However, Hadidi says the future of sustainability lies in the people’s willingness to demand it.
“You promote the green energy by saying to the government, ‘We only want green energy,’” he says. “This is how you make the government do it.”
This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent’s weekly print edition.