food / travel

A Boom In Egyptian Eco-Tourism, But So Many Trails Still Shut Off

Egypt's White Desert
Egypt's White Desert
Sabrina Ghazal

CAIRO - Among the amazing landscapes Egypt possesses, the most precious are undoubtedly the seashores on the North Coast and the Red Sea, as well as the desert. Countless sites in these areas are unique and rare wonders of nature, and require special care and protection.

The Egyptian Tourism Ministry has a plan for how to use these natural reserves to their full potential and develop environmental tourism. But there is a lot to do, and there are many obstacles that handicap the project.

Tourists are now eager to delve into rough natural surroundings and indulge in wildlife adventures, to get away from their urban lifestyles — and, if managed properly, they can find all of this in Egypt.

“Eco-tourism is booming,” says Mahmoud al-Kaissouny, environmental adviser to the Tourism Ministry. “And it is on its way to representing half of international tourism.”

The country’s 2,600 kilometers of beaches offer countless diving spots, including underwater landmarks and caves on the North Coast. The Red Sea is considered one of the top 10 diving destinations in the world. The desert includes areas of unique geological significance, as well as rare natural rock formations.

White desert in Egypt (Alfonso Ianni)

These areas need to be protected, and since the 1980s, 30 of them – mostly located in the desert – have been declared national parks. In the early 1990s, the environment ministry — led at the time by Nadia Makram Ebeid — laid out a plan to declare 40 areas as natural reserves by the year 2017.

But new discoveries were made, and the now includes 44 protected areas.

“Gebel Kamil, which is very rich in remnants of meteorites, was the last area declared a natural reserve,” says Kaissouny, referring to an area located in the southeast of Gilf al-Kebir, in the Western Desert, in southwestern Egypt.

Among the most important protected areas, in terms of biodiversity, are Wadi al-Gamal National Park, Gebel Elba mountain and the Wadi Allaqi reserve.

Wadi al-Hitan, located in the Wadi al-Rayan natural reserve, is considered one of the most amazing archaeological spots in the world. According to a UNESCO report, Wadi al-Hitan’s unique whale fossils are proof that the whale’s ancestor was a land-based animal. This discovery put Wadi al-Hitan on the protected areas map.

But despite their importance, most protected areas have been extremely neglected for years, if not decades.

“After Nadia Makram Ebeid’s term as minister, there was a growing disinterest for Egypt’s national parks, which slowly degraded, Wadi al-Rayan being the most prominent example of this decay,” Kaissouny says. “If you go there today, you will not be able to enter. It is full of garbage and completely degraded — it is very sad.”
The Italian government designated and funded this natural reserve, and even though Egypt was not able to maintain it, it is now willing to reinvest and rejuvenate the reserve.

The government’s plan

The goal of the Tourism Ministry, together with the Environment Ministry, is to upgrade and renovate already existing natural reserves, to announce new protected areas, and to use them for economic and touristic purposes.

“This project aims to allow tourism investments within the protected areas of Egypt by loosening the restrictions on these protectorates, a little,” Tourism Minister Hesham Zaazou explains.

He suggests that building codes could be adjusted, such as the law that prevents building on more than 10% of protected areas’ land.

“This could be changed to 20%, provided that the infrastructure to be built follows a specific set of requirements that ensures the safety and protection of these areas,” Zaazou says.

Not everyone, however, is as enthusiastic as the minister about these plans.

“We do not need to build more,” says Usama Ghazali, former head ranger of Gebel Elba protected area.

He believes there is a pressing need to come up with better management strategies.

“The ministerial plan is basically to build more within the protected areas. This is not what we need,” he says. “What we need is more services and facilities that respect the environment.”

Many colors under Egypt's Red Sea (photo: prilfish)

There are no laws that govern land use, and none that manage diving centers or other facilities — and most of the time they are not compliant with environmental protection rules.

Ghazali argues that decision makers need to be in the field and understand what the environment and the people living within it need.

“This is very different than what the people sitting at their desks in Cairo want,” he asserts.

He believes that in order to reach an understanding on how to upgrade the protected areas, governing entities and local people need to compromise to help preserve the environment and people’s livelihoods.

In addition, there is a huge obstacle facing this project that is crippling the plans of the ministry.

“In the last 50 years, presidential decrees were issued, and these decrees limited the use of Egyptian land, including protected areas,” Kaissouny says. “Tourism has the freedom to use 6% of Egyptian lands.”

Many protected areas require up to 27 permits within 25 days just to access them.

For instance, a group traveling to the Dakhla Oasis, must first obtain numerous permits, and then, on the way, they will pass about 18 checkpoints where they have to show their permits. The procedure can be very hectic, and an eight-hour trip to the oasis can easily take 14 hours.

This makes it difficult to access natural reserves, and these procedures limit tourism in the area.

“The area of Gebel Elba necessitates many permits to acquire the right of entry, and it makes it very hard and frustrating to get there,” Ghazali complains.

Kaissouny says these decrees were issued based on problems that no longer exist, and that they are now useless.

“We are not in a state of war; we do not need all these limitations,” Kaissouny says.

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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Future

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.


But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

commons.wikimedia.org

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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