Policing the green desert

With the Sinai coastline poised on the brink of massive hotel development, Terry Kilsby considers how the Egyptian Government plans to protect the region's future

Just a few years ago you could number the population of Sharm EI Sheikh, perched at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula, in terms of dozens. Today international hotels are queuing up to put their roots down in the area. Sharm EI Sheikh has become the focal point for a string of hotel developments along the coastline stretching northwards. Mile upon mile of staked building land, eerily empty at the moment, is testimony to the fact that the stunning panorama of sculpted golden mountains and desert skirting the clear waters of the Gulf of Aqaba will be an hotelier's dream - but at what cost to the environment?

The projected hotel development is awesome. Sharm EI Sheikh is aiming to grow its rooms to 24,000 and possibly 42,000 beds. The Taba coastal strip, south of the border with Israel and currently consisting of one 326 bedroom Hilton hotel, has plans to expand to similar levels. With the Gulf being home to some of the most spectacular coral formations outside Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the environmental stakes are about as high as you can get.

At the centre of this explosive hotel expansion and the delicate desert environment is marine biologist Dr. Michael Pearson who heads the Ras Mohamed National Park Sector Development Project set up by the Egyptian Environment Authority. Despite the formidable challenges he is optimistic that close monitoring of hotel development, backed up by powerful legislation, will get as close as is humanly possible to achieving the goal of sustainable development.

"The Protected Area Programme, which stretches the length of the eastern coastal fringe of the Sinai, has complete authority over all aspects of development," he explains. "The desert ecology is far more fragile than temperate systems so our powers have to be wide ranging. We can demand environmental impact assessments from operators concerning all aspects of hotel development - roads, building design, effluent management, solid waste disposal or power generation - and act with sweeping powers to ensure the environment is protected."

This is not rhetoric. The project has taken legal action against a number of hotel owners and significantly, won. One owner had to redesign hotel plans to meet high-rise restrictions. Another, which had altered and destabilised an adjacent beach was forced to replace it, stone by stone, to its original state.

Dr. Pearson regards the use of the law as very much a last resort. "Our strategy is to avoid coming down hard - we want to build up confidence between ourselves, hotel operators and owners and develop a lasting partnership." He stresses that he also advises on alternative hotel plans that will meet environmental objectives. "We explain that it is in the hoteliers' long-term interests that they protect what their guests come to see the environment."

This strategy has encouraged hotels to realise the benefits of maintaining their own environmental standards. Unscrupulous hotel operators who pollute are as likely to be pressured by impact their competitors, who do obey the rules, as by the Park authorities themselves. Hotels that successfully achieve their environmental impact assessment objectives become 'Partners of the Park' and are entitled to use a special logo in their advertising material.

"Hotel management teams are beginning to understand the benefits of prioritising the environment on which they depend," adds Dr. Pearson. "Corporate executives now realise that trashing a site means losing income in the long term. It is this link between protecting investment in tourism by protecting the environment that the Egyptian government is prepared to enforce."

For the big hotel chains the reality is further complicated by the confines of a management contract. The challenge is not just one of working within the legislative framework of the Park authorities but also to win the support of their investor property owners.

When a hotel design can be approved and the hotel built many months before the ink is dry on a management contract, the scope for major alterations to implement corporate environmental standards can be severely restricted. One Sinai hotel general manager commented that all the light fittings in the recently completed building did not conform to his company's energy-efficient standards and he faced the prospect of trying to persuade his owner to replace them.

Most established hotels in the region have readily adapted to the ethos of environmental conservation and are disseminating their experience in ways that often break down competitive barriers. Hilton International Divisional Director Claude Chesnais, based at Fayrouz Hilton Resort, Sharm EI Sheikh, is one of the area's pioneer hoteliers. "Several developers and architects have approached me to discuss their plans," he explains, "and I have been able to direct them to what is, and what is not, acceptable.

Hoteliers of long-standing have helped new hotels understand that it is in all our interests that we preserve the environment on which we depend." Hilton International's plans to develop new properties in Sinai show that lessons have been learnt. Whereas the established Taba Hilton Resort is having to build a new sewerage plant to treat its effluent to higher standards, all Hilton's new properties, and that means its new investors and owners, have accepted that high-tech sewerage treatment facilities and desalination plants must now come as standard. Critics point out that for some areas the legislative framework has come too late.

Resorts such as Hurghada, allowed to develop without sufficient controls, are readily accepted as devastating the shoreline and its delicate coral formations and stand as reminders of what is really at stake. As the Sinai faces a new future of mass tourism, the comprehensive legislative environmental framework in place aims to ensure that hotel developers and hoteliers face up to their green obligations. Those that have taken on the environmental challenge positively and enthusiastically with environmental committees, beach clean-ups and monitoring of water and power consumption have found that running a 'clean' hotel has many advantages - both operationally and in marketing terms.

Hoteliers, particularly those catering for European tourists, report that guests are starting to exert their own environmental agenda in terms of choice of hotel and the leisure activities they pursue. "It is really a matter of capacity," concludes Dr. Pearson. "We have sufficient controls in existence - whether they will be enough to cope with the massive levels of future expansion will be the real challenge."

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