Travel

Egypt’s Red Sea resort that’s making waves

Egypt’s Red Sea resort that’s making waves

Elise Morton

As I sat under the welcome shade of a cluster of palm trees, my gaze drifted over the calm waters of the lagoon ahead of me – and was caught by a line of neatly labelled terracotta rubbish bins.

To be honest, when I’d imagined my trip to Egypt’s Red Sea region, I’d pictured swimming in warm, crystal-clear waters and discovering vibrant coral reefs surrounded by brightly coloured fish. And though I was able to do all of that, it was not the marine beauty that captivated me the most, but rather El Gouna‘s impressive commitment to sustainability. Instead of detracting from the natural beauty of the Egyptian resort town, the rubbish bins were a welcome sight.

In November 2022, the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference, more commonly referred to as COP27, will be held across the water at the popular Egyptian holiday resort of Sharm El-Sheikh. What many visitors don’t know is that, here on the country’s western coast, El Gouna has been focused on sustainability since before COP’s existence.

“Creating a contained, self-sustaining ecosystem was always a target for El Gouna,” said Omar El Hamamsy, CEO of Orascom Development (the Swiss-based company that built and manages El Gouna). Conceived as a waterside idyll in 1989 by Egyptian entrepreneur and Orascom engineer Samih Sawiris, El Gouna takes its name from the Arabic for “the lagoon”. It’s an apt moniker: the chic community of holidaymakers and residents is built across 20 islands and turquoise lagoons, linked by canals and lined with promenades and sandy beaches. Visitors can stay in one of 18 hotels; play on two golf courses (irrigated with recycled water and from the town’s own desalination plants); enjoy water sports such as kitesurfing, windsurfing or diving; or mingle with celebrities at glam events like the El Gouna Film Festival (next slated for October 2022).

But it has grown to be more than a glitzy vacation destination. Beyond the hotels and golf courses, the town now hosts a hospital, library, school, university and places of worship, serving a resident population of around 24,000 people. The community even has its own Egyptian Premier League football team, El Gouna FC.

In 2014, El Gouna became the first place in Africa and the Arab region to receive the UN-sponsored Global Green Town award (Credit: Orascom Hotels Management)

In 2014, El Gouna became the first place in Africa and the Arab region to receive the UN-sponsored Global Green Town award (Credit: Orascom Hotels Management)

What’s more, in the 30-plus years since its inception, the town has been lauded for its commitment to the environment. In 2014, El Gouna became the first place in Africa and the Arab region to receive the UN-sponsored Global Green Town award, honouring cities displaying substantial efforts and progress towards environmental sustainability and a greener community.

Prior to that, in 2007, El Gouna partnered with the Egyptian Ministries of Tourism and Economic Cooperation and Development, as well as commercial travel operators Travco and TUI, to launch (and serve as the pilot location for) the Green Star Hotel Initiative, the Middle East’s first national eco-certification programme for tourism. This initiative aims to combat the environmental risks (such as pollution and exacerbating water scarcity) posed by the rapidly expanding tourist sector in Egypt – a country which, El Hamamsy noted, “has not historically had an orientation towards sustainability and environmentally friendly design and architecture”.

As a guest in El Gouna, one of the first things I noticed were the abundance of designated recycling points, a relative rarity in Egypt. Then there were the electric and solar-powered tuk-tuks ferrying people around; as well as an electric bike-sharing system, the first in Africa, launched in 2017. Amid Nubian-inspired architecture, designed to achieve maximum passive cooling, I saw signs inviting me to minimise consumption of water and detergents, eco taps in the hotel rooms to reduce water usage, and a distinct lack of plastic straws and packaging.

“We decided the best combination was not an ‘in your face’ approach but inviting guests to join us in the efforts through many micro practices,” El Hamamsy said.

But much of the environmental effort happens behind the scenes. 

According to Zainub Ibrahim, a professor in the School of Hospitality and Tourism at Canada’s Algonquin College, who wrote her thesis on Tourism Development and the Environment on the Egyptian Red Sea Coast, these measures include “the wastewater treatment plant, the recycling and solid waste treatment plant, the use of locally sourced biodegradable materials”.

El Gouna Farm produces olive oil, dates, jojoba oil, wool and meat (Credit: Elise Morton)

El Gouna Farm produces olive oil, dates, jojoba oil, wool and meat (Credit: Elise Morton)

More specifically, the resort town has a zero-waste system, meaning that more than 85% of all waste is reused and recycled; and it recycles 100% of its water – a process I was able to see when I clambered up a ladder to look down on the vast reservoirs of its wastewater management plant. Around 6,700 cubic metres of wastewater is treated per day, to be used principally for irrigation. Two desalination plants (some of the first on the Red Sea and the very first to utilise energy-efficient low-temperature desalination) meet 95% of El Gouna’s drinking water needs.

The town also has an onsite recycling plant that converts all its plastic into rubbish bags, clothes and hangers; and, as I found out during lunch one day, it sources 40% of its food locally. El Gouna Farm plays a key role in this latter endeavour, producing olive oil, dates, jojoba oil (to be used in skin and hair products), wool and meat (visitors can arrange tours by talking to their hotel reception). The eight lagoons of the town’s fish farm provide fresh seafood, while the various hotel gardens grow herbs and vegetables: think fragrant thyme, basil, mint and coriander; bounties of garlic and spring onions; and trees laden with pomegranates, mangoes and figs.

The resort’s environmental ethos is a draw for residents as well for eco-conscious entrepreneurs. While browsing in her wellness boutique beside the marina one afternoon, I met Norshek Fawzy, co-founder of local health and beauty brand Norshek, who came to El Gouna from Cairo for the sustainable lifestyle it offers and the progressive attitude of locals. “The place brings the people, and the people make the place,” said Fawzy, who launched Norshek with her husband, Nabil, in 2020.

The resort's environmental ethos is a draw for eco-conscious entrepreneurs like Norshek Fawzy, co-founder of health and beauty band Norshek (Credit: Elise Morton)

The resort’s environmental ethos is a draw for eco-conscious entrepreneurs like Norshek Fawzy, co-founder of health and beauty band Norshek (Credit: Elise Morton)

That lifestyle and attitude extends to social consciousness as well – a value that’s particularly evident in El Gouna’s Egyptian House, a store-cum-workshop in Abu Tig Marina. The space brings together five brands that help women in El Gouna and the surrounding region generate income through the sale of sustainable handicrafts, all the while reviving traditional Egyptian craft skills.

One of the brands is Malaika Linens, which teaches women hand embroidery and entrepreneurship. Co-founder Goya Gallagher said they were led to open their first Egyptian store here because of El Gouna’s environmental commitment. “We have always shared El Gouna’s vision of sustainability – both social and environmental sustainability,” she said. “For example, we believe in producing products that can last a lifetime and don’t need to be replaced. We are 95% plastic-free and are working on the last 5%!”

That kind of interest in community-focused projects seems to be in the water in El Gouna. The town’s annual Earth Week is “completely community-originated”, explained Fawzy. The event, which usually takes place in April, has included community beach clean-ups, upcycling workshops and talks on eco tech at entrepreneurial hub GSpace

“The place brings the people, and the people make the place”

Despite all of this effort to be green, El Gouna’s management team has acknowledged a couple of elephants in its room: the tension between the claim of creating a sustainable resort town and the destruction of virgin landscapes required to build it; and the fact that most holidaymakers get here by air travel – famously not an eco-friendly method of transport.

“At a high level, human intervention always causes an initial disruption,” El Hamamsy admitted.

The solution is one of El Gouna’s biggest goals: to become Africa’s first carbon-neutral town. This is a long-term project, conceived in 2014 in partnership with the Egyptian Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs. Former environment minister Laila Iskandar said, “I was impressed with El Gouna’s pioneering approach to voluntarily reach carbon neutrality although the law did not require it. It represented an awareness of the importance of running a destination with a responsibility towards people and the planet.”

Among the developments already made in service of this goal, she told me, are the “identification of major greenhouse-gas emission sources and reduction measures… energy efficiency in the buildings, electric vehicles, efficient and low-carbon management of the water supply, and recycling of waste and water.”

Egyptian House brings together brands that help women in El Gouna and the surrounding region generate income through the sale of sustainable handicrafts (Credit: Elise Morton)

Egyptian House brings together brands that help women in El Gouna and the surrounding region generate income through the sale of sustainable handicrafts (Credit: Elise Morton)

Covid-19, however, threw a spanner in the works. “One thing we want to do is to accurately measure our carbon footprint and be more specific about how our measures are offsetting emissions from transport,” El Hamamsy said. “To be transparent, we haven’t yet managed to fully quantify it, due to distortion over the last few years, which saw many Egyptian visitors arriving in cars.” A new, specialised committee will be leading the post-Covid phase of the project – outlining new initiatives and laying down target dates.

A certain step on the agenda, though, is increasing the capacity of El Gouna’s solar plant (opened in 2021) and expanding mangrove forests, which protect against coastal erosion, sequester carbon, filter pollutants and provide breeding grounds for fish and clean waters for coral. “These measures are particularly important in this ecologically sensitive region that has high biodiversity in the water,” Ibrahim explained.

“We hope this town will exist in many decades to come… the only way to do that is by being fully sustainable and eco-friendly,” added El Hamamsy, “Ultimately, the Earth is something we all have the responsibility of protecting. We have to play our role.”

Courtesy: BBC

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