The Egyptian coastal resort has been reinvented (again) to host world leaders for the COP27, as it aims to cast a climate-financing-hungry Egypt in a favorable light. But the cosmetic changes hide years of harm to the region's ecosystem.
SHARM EL-SHEIKH — Amgad* arrived in Sharm el-Sheikh about 40 years ago, driven by curiosity like many other Egyptian youths at the time to explore this corner of Sinai, newly returned to Egypt in the wake of the 1973 war after a 15 years of Israeli occupation.
What Amgad found was a small Bedouin village sheltered within an immaculate landscape: to the east, the Gulf of Aqaba, teeming with marine creatures and jeweled with coral reefs; to the south, two Egyptian islands — now transferred to Saudi Arabia — that separated Sinai from Saudi Arabia; to the west, valleys and mountains, part of the Great Rift Valley, traversed by the Bedouin tribes who have settled in the area for centuries.
The coastline is home to 200 unique species of coral, 500 species of marine vegetation and various species of fish and marine animals, part of the Egyptian barrier reefs that marine ecology professor Mahmoud Hassan Hanafy tells Mada Masr are among the last sanctuaries for this type of marine life in the world, having demonstrated unique resilience to climate change. Onshore ecosystems also serve to protect marine life, he notes.
If, however, you’re among the thousands converging on the city this month to attend COP27, four decades separate you from the site of natural beauty that Amgad first laid eyes on.
Bridges are suspended overhead, and wide tarmacked roads cinch the city from point to point, walled off from the surrounding mountains and the indigenous Bedouin population.
The years that intervene between Amgad and yourself have seen Sharm el-Sheikh and its landscapes transformed again and again to attract tourists and the foreign currency income they represent. In its latest, freshly greened incarnation, the city has been reinvented again to host world leaders for the global conference on climate change, geared to show its good graces in hosting discussions at which Egypt will be seeking to secure precious climate financing. Beneath the mask the city’s donned for COP27 are the marks of years of uncalculated redevelopment activity that has eroded its ecosystem almost beyond recognition.
From Bedouin oasis to tourist attraction
For thousands of years, the deserts of South Sinai remained largely unsettled, with their only population being nomadic. It was under the British occupation in the 20th century that a nascent mining industry emerged for industrial earth metals in Abu in South Sinai’s west, later nationalized in the 1960s. Petroleum extraction commenced on both sides of the Gulf of Suez and in North Sinai in the same decade, and urbanization, already underway in the north, expanded accordingly into the south of the peninsula, mainly concentrated around extractive industries.
After occupying Sinai in 1967, the Israelis repurposed the area in a new way. The Israeli Nature and Parks Authority designated 98% of the territory as a protected land reserve, a legislative step that had the effect of securing a monopoly for centralized authorities over building and development. The Bedouins who had relied for centuries upon an intricate knowledge of Sinai’s flora and fauna, its weather patterns and the delicate balance of its resources, were not allowed to undertake the construction of anything larger than a wooden shack.
And it wasn’t long before Israel exploited the economic opportunity that lay in the 1,500 km of coral reefs. It established the first diving center in the region, along with a few primitive tourist camps, according to Kevin,* among the first Europeans to arrive in Sharm el-Sheikh in the 1970s, who has since established one of the largest diving centers in the city. The occupying forces built a road along the eastern coast to connect Taba, Dahab and the site that is now Sharm el-Sheikh — then an Israeli settlement named Ofira. Visiting tourists from Israel and Europe were captivated by the unique marine and terrestrial ecosystems.
Eroding cliffs in Sharm el-SheikhSinai Reef
The "Presidential city"
As Egypt slowly and gradually began to regain control of Sinai after the 1973 war, Sharm el-Sheikh was returned to the Egyptian government in 1982.
Building on the nascent tourist industry, the government placed South Sinai at the heart of its development plans. The city was a prime contender for the emerging warm-water-beach tourism market already established in the Canary Islands, the Caribbean, Seychelles, Thailand, Malaysia and Bali.
Sharm had the competitive advantage of comparative proximity to Europe, proffering tempting airfare savings for potential travelers from the bloc, where operators projected that Sinai could reasonably expect to capture 4 to 6% of the market share by 1990.
The government embarked upon the venture. From 1985, it began to sell off land cheaply, sometimes at less than $12 per meter, to local developers who recognized the importance of this type of tourism, among them business tycoon and close friend of former President Hosni Mubarak, Hussein Salem. Salem’s newly acquired land increased in value by as much as 10,000% immediately after contracts were signed with the Tourism Development Authority, meaning that occupancy rates of no higher than 30% could secure him a return on his investment in only two years. It was not long before he established a resort empire.
The limitations that the Israeli occupation had placed on Bedouin construction were upheld by Egyptian authorities, which forced them to give up lands they had managed to reclaim to buyers from the government or private developers. They were sometimes recompensed with prices as low as $6 to $8 per square meter at the time. The Bedouins would even find themselves buying back formal land deeds from the central government. The tribes were relegated, their ability to maintain the economic activities underpinning their nomadic lifestyle impaired or repackaged in services such as “Bedouin Parties” or chauffeuring tourists.
Marketing Sharm el-Sheikh as a tourist destination proved effective. Soon enough, European tourists, particularly well-to-do Britons and Germans, began to flock to the coastline, which began to transform into a city, says Amin,* a former environmental researcher from South Sinai’s protectorate administration.
The marine ecosystem was completely destroyed by hotels and tourism.
The thriving tourist trade was a lifeline to the national economy, providing a key source of foreign currency income to support the balance of payments and allowing the Hosni Mubarak government to time its implementation of the harsh economic reforms that came alongside the 1987 IMF program. And though a series of attacks by extremist groups in the Nile Valley meant that tourism revenues fluctuated, there was an ongoing stream of customers in Sinai providing foreign currency that allowed the government to continue resisting that persistent external pressure for domestic fiscal change.
Yet the rapid development of Sharm el-Sheikh over this period was not so fast to bring about the kind of major ecological damage that was incurred during the development of Hurghada, a resort town further south along Egypt’s Red Sea coast.
“The Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency at the time managed to protect Sharm el-Sheikh from Hurghada’s fate — the marine ecology of which was completely destroyed by hotels and tourism,” says Amin, the former environmental researcher.
Some protection was secured for the area, as Sharm el-Sheikh and the Straits of Tiran were added to the Ras Mohamed nature reserve by the EEAA under Salah Hafez’s tenure as its head, allowing the agency to impose strict and costly regulations on developers, as Hafez tells Mada Masr. “Investors could either comply with our conditions or decide it was too expensive and invest elsewhere. Boats breaking the rules were banned from entering the protectorate for a month and EEAA inspectors were constantly making rounds to ensure there were no violations.”
Construction permits stipulated a minimum distance from the shoreline for planned construction and a maximum height of two storeys. Resorts set out to build their own desalination plants, and generators were powered by diesel or solar panels, several researchers at the Environment Ministry tell Mada Masr.
Some think that it was the presidential interest in the city that delayed major environmental decline over the 1990s. Mubarak regularly frequented Sharm for retreats or international summits, earning it the epithet of “the president’s city.”
“Mubarak’s constant presence in Sharm el-Sheikh and his attentiveness toward it minimized the extent of ecological damage brought on by the tourism industry to the city,” says Amin.
A tourist resort in Sharm El Sheikh
COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine, a double blow
But by 2004, the thriving tourist trade along the east coast of South Sinai brought the area to the attention of extremists. Attacks began with the bombing of the Hilton Taba in 2004, followed by a series of bombings in Sharm that took the lives of 88 people, and another that killed 23 in Dahab in 2006.
The tourism industry continued to grow, though at a slower pace, until the global economic recession hit in 2008. Europeans, the key market of customers for South Sinai, saw a dip in their disposable income, and hotels reached for a lower-income customer base, offering all-inclusive package deals and resort tourism, often to tourist markets in Ukraine and Russia.
Instead of seeking out experienced divers who were willing to pay high amounts to access the coral reefs and marine life, the threshold was lowered: snorkeling allowed tourists to observe coral reefs from the surface of the water; speedboats offered a cheap thrill; and novices were catered to with alternative forms of diving, dubbed “Lipton diving” by researchers at the Environment Ministry. While diving represented 80% of maritime leisure activities in 2008, just two years later, snorkeling and watersports came to make up 60% of the activity.
With less income, says Hafez, hotels were less able to maintain conservation standards: “try telling an official in a tourism-dominated city that the environment is being destroyed, they’d respond, ‘are the fish and gazelles really the only problem you can think of?’”
The imperative to generate foreign currency for the national budget meant that the race to the bottom was far from over.
Revolution in 2011 and a coup in 2013, destabilizing the economic status quo elsewhere in Egypt, did little to impact tourist inflows to South Sinai. But in October 2015, a Russian flight took off from Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport, only to drop from the sky over the peninsula in what the Islamic State later claimed was an attack that killed all 224 of the passengers.
Russia imposed a ban on flights to Egypt that would last six years, while other countries requested that their citizens evacuate Sharm el-Sheikh. As many as 38,000 visitors were departing per day, and hotel occupancy rates dropped by 90%. Some hotels were left with just 6% occupancy, leading to waves of staff layoffs or closure. In just a few months, 900,000 people employed directly or indirectly by the tourism industry in the city lost their jobs, according to a report by the Hotel and Tourism Management Institute Switzerland.
Grappling to keep the cash coming in, hotels across the city cut prices, trips were organized by the Youth and Sports Ministry, and EgyptAir offered short-lived discounts to encourage Egyptians to visit the city. The initiative was soon canceled as it became clear that an unregulated influx of tourists was causing harm to seashores and marine life.
Once again, it was time to rebrand. Posters featuring a smiling President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the words “City of Peace” written in Arabic, English and Russian were plastered around the city, Sharm el-Sheikh residents say.
To live up to its promise to “protect tourists and residents,” as South Sinai Governor Khaled Fouda put it, the government revived an idea to wall the city off. The initiative had been floated under the Mubarak administration in 2005 and 2009, but strong contestation saw works suspended indefinitely, until the project was once again set in motion in 2019.
The wall’s construction reinforced the Bedouins’ alienation from the city in bricks and mortar, separating the space enclosed for tourists from the Bedouin-populated Ruwaisat area, with security checkpoints policing the roadways leading to the city.
The wall was rebuilt, apparently with no lessons learned.
And once again, Sharm’s reinvention came at the cost of environmental and ecological integrity. The mayor claimed that the wall would help “prevent the flow of waste from sheep and goats as well as plastic and debris that could pollute the bay.” But it was built without drainage canals, and as rains descended from the coastal mountaintops in 2021, floodwater accumulated around the obstruction that the wall presented, with pressure building until it swept the wall, people and properties away in its wake.
The wall was rebuilt, apparently with no lessons learned. “They said the floods were a one-time occurrence and wouldn’t happen again,” remembers Samir,* an employee at the Environment Ministry. But the same scenario reoccurred, and the wall was rebuilt a second time with the same engineering oversight, Samir says.
Similar disruptions to the area’s ecology persist. On the coastline, near the convention halls set to host the climate summit in the Sharks Bay area, dredging and excavation activity extends several kilometers in order to accommodate a yacht marina, part of government plans to attract yacht tourism despite international criticism of the environmental damage it inflicts. Dozens of bulldozers and dredgers operate day and night to dig up the plateau facing the bay, while the owners of nearby hotels expect demolition orders any day now, a hotel manager tells Mada Masr.
Mada Masr is unaware of any environmental restrictions imposed on the marina project, yet an Environment Ministry researcher notes that it is classified as part of a national project to establish a new port overlooking one of the city’s main roads. National projects, the researcher claims, speaking on condition of anonymity, are not subject to environmental law. “They are undertaken without any concern for the environment. The ministry is not even notified beforehand. We wake up to find them underway, and nobody can say a word about it.”
The dedication to reinvigorating tourism at any cost has superseded regard for environmental restrictions. Decrees issued to entice investment by actors in the private sector leverage exemption from environmental standards as an incentive. At the same time, funding has dried up from the European Union, which previously contributed toward providing research boats, diving equipment and patrol vehicles for ecological maintenance. As a result, staff salaries at the environmental agency have decreased, the number of employees has shrunk and regulatory efforts have suffered, according to three Environment Ministry researchers.
Regardless, tourism in Sharm el-Sheikh has yet to recover, especially following the double impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
With the local economy so tied to tourism, efforts to rein in the damage have proved hard to implement. South Sinai’s protectorates administration banned diving training for non-professionals in 2019 as a result of the extensive damage to the coral reefs and marine ecology, say Wael* and his colleagues at the Environment Ministry. But as hundreds lost jobs and dozens of diving centers closed, the administration soon overturned its decision.
Now, say the researchers, around 200,000 people visit Ras Muhamad National Park each year, well beyond the globally recommended cap for diving sites of just 7,000–15,000 people per year.
The main entrance to the COP27 UN Climate Change Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh.
All for COP27 show?
After these decades of environmental deterioration, the government embarked this year upon plans to green the city, as Egypt was delegated to host COP27 during the 2021 edition of the climate summit in Glasgow, UK.
Hotels are now encouraged to pay for “Green Star Certification” at a rate of 200 to 2,000 euros for two years’ validity, signaling their compliance with environmentally conscious practices, such as energy conservation, water conservation and staff training. One hundred twenty hotels out of the city’s 160, and 60 diving centers, have qualified.
Renewable energy stations are installed at the airport and in conference centers, and a new waste disposal and management system has been implemented in cooperation with Emirati companies.
Roads are lined on both sides with street lamps fitted with solar panels, intended to generate clean energy for lighting and to save the city council millions in electricity fees.
Rather than “greening” the city, “they are preparing for the climate change summit with asphalt."
But Sharm el-Sheikh’s rebrand for COP27 is only skin deep. The silver-colored solar panels atop the lamp posts are coated in dust, while power cables still extrude from the ground to supply lighting via the national grid.
“After purchasing thousands of panels and batteries, they discovered they were weak and failed after one month,” says Amgad, the Egyptian national who first moved to Sharm after it was reclaimed from Israel. “They fixed them once, but they failed again. They stopped cleaning them properly, so they stopped working, and in the end they just connected them to regular power cables,” says Amgad.
Rather than “greening” the city for COP27, “they are preparing for the climate change summit with asphalt,” says Amgad. The city council of Sharm el-Sheikh started to resurface all the roads in the city, he says, less than two years after they were last paved, and has begun to increase the width of several roads up to as many as 12 lanes. The size of bicycle lanes has been reduced to make way for the expansion.
Residents also comment on this year’s construction of a new boardwalk, typically a beachside feature, along the city’s central Salam Road.
For veterans of Sharm, it seems to complete the picture of the residents’ alienation from the area’s ecosystem.
There are no public beaches in Sharm el-Sheikh, says Samir, one of the Environment Ministry researchers. “All the beaches are either owned by hotels or rented by the city council to the private sector. The minimum ticket price is usually LE100 per person.”
Amgad scoffs: “a boardwalk in a coastal city extending over 10 km with hotels and shops for a view. They seem to have overlooked the fact that there isn’t a single point from which to view the sea.”