Saturday, March 20, 2010

Desert ecotourism: what's in it for Egypt?

Global Post (Jon Jensen)

Ecotourism is taking off throughout Egypt, boosting an economy already heavily dependent on tourism revenue. Bahariya is among those destinations increasingly popular for their pristine natural environment.

However, Egypt is quickly learning the need for balance between environment and development, amid concerns that tourism is stressing the country's fragile ecosystems to the point of collapse.

And the debate on ecotourism is even being had here, on the dusty streets of Bahariya’s largest village.

Ali Abdel Salem, 58, has lived in Bawati all his life. He has fond memories of the days before an asphalt highway was built linking the oasis to Cairo.

A trip from the capital that once took five days now takes only five hours.

“Fifty years ago, Bahariya was calm and quiet,” said Abdel Salem. “Now it’s starting to feel like Cairo. It’s crowded and noisy.”

Bahariya Oasis, once a thriving agricultural center for the Roman Empire, is now the preferred stepping-stone and supply stop for tourists heading to the surrounding deserts. Newly discovered ancient temples set against a stunning natural backdrop is another reason tourism is increasing here.

In recent years, the number of visitors to Bahariya has climbed so high that one-third of the oasis’ almost 40,000 residents are now working in tourism. Over the past decade, unemployment decreased as the number of hotels in Bahariya shot up 500 percent, according to Bahariya’s tourism office.

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