Ecotourism successes 3. Lessons from Basata

Posted: 10 July 2001

Author: Heba Aziz and Sue Wheat

Basata is a place of beauty and peace in the midst of Egypt's burgeoning concrete 'Riviera' on the Sinai coast. Heba Aziz and Sue Wheat report on one man's ecotourist dream come true.

You hardly notice Basata from the road. Thirty miles before Taba, on the Egypt-Israeli border, you pass Nuweiba - a small town nudging into the backpacker scene - shops selling tie-dye T-shirts and ethnic trousers and Bedouin tents made into restaurants. Six miles north is Basata, an unsullied bay scattered with well-made bamboo bungalows and striking Egyptian-style mud houses.

The first thing you reach at the end of Basata's cacti-lined drive is the large bamboo reception, lounge and kitchen, decorated simply with lowtables, cushions and Egyptian artefacts. A look around at the enviously content visitors proves this is by no means a backpacker's hippie haven, nor a cultural-shows-on-the-hour type place. It is for anyone who likes to talk, eat good food, read, snorkel, sunbathe and generally chill-out.

Minimal impact

Basata (which is Arabic for 'simplicity') is beautiful and intends to stay that way. Set up by an Egyptian engineer Sherif El-Ghamrawy 11 years ago, Basata is run with Egypt's arid, fragile landscape in mind, conserving water and reducing waste to a minimum - an environmental management process that was so unusual that it took him 12 years to get permission from theauthorities to operate. Sherif El-GhamrawyShreif El-Ghamrawy© Sue Wheat"This is such a fragile environment - it's only a few metres from the coral to the beach to the mountains so I have tried to set up this place with as little environmental impact as possible," explains Sherif. Accommodation is in comfortable, candle-lit bamboo huts metres away from the sea and tents are also rented out in the high season, when visitor numbers reach 300.

With no infrastructure for the disposal of solid waste or waste water disposal, and no fresh water supply, Sherif has set up an all-encompassing recycling system. Plastic bottles are shredded and sold to a recycling business in Cairo along with paper and glass. Basata's livestock - goats, ducks, donkeys and a camel - recycle any left over food into fertiliser which is then used in the greenhouse to grow vegetables.

Its own small desalination plant provides fresh water to the kitchen and bathrooms with each tap running for six seconds per press and the high saline solution - a by-product of the desalination process - is used for flushing toilets and for construction. Sherif's love of the area and commonsense approach to conserving it, is the driving force behind Basata's success.

But he realises Basata stands alone amongst a host of luxury hotels planned along the Gulf of Aqaba. "Already most of Sinai is ruined - there isn't one metre of coastline that isn't sold to developers between Nuweiba and Taba. In a few years you won't be able to see the sea, it's terrifying."

Sinai development

The construction that Sherif is terrified by is what the Egyptian tourist authority term the proposed 'Egyptian Riviera'. Egypt is promoting Sinai heavily to counteract the recent troubles that faced the tourism industry in Upper Egypt. The experience of the few tourist spots already developed is not encouraging however. Sharm El-Sheikh - currently the only large resort in Sinai - is a prime spot from which to take diving excursions to superb reefs like Ras Mohammed, and week-long camel safaris to St. Catherine's monastery. It is an artificially developed tourist town with tacky souvenir shops, luxury tourist 'ghettos' and Las Vegas-style casinos (which are illegal for Egyptians to visit). tourist developmentLuxury hotels put increasing pressure on local resources© Martin Wright/Still PicturesMost hotels in Sharm el-Sheikh have lawns and flowering gardens although such greenery in the desert requires huge amounts of valuable water andpolluting fertilisers. Across the road, local people have to live with very scarce water supplies, as the water that feeds the hotels comes from their private desalination plants and is not extended to serving the locality. With rabid hotel construction Sharm el-Sheikh is on course to increase the number of beds from its current 8,400 to the 1998 target of 30,000, although the construction dust is taking its toll on the beach-side coral which is becoming dull and lifeless. When we asked one local hotel owner what the authorities were planning for the area, he answered immediately, "they are trying very hard to kill Sinai."

A Tourism Development Plan for the Sinai does include some environmental rules and regulations to be followed during and after construction, butimplementation details or guidelines on how the rules would be enforced are glaringly absent. At Taba, this lack of enforcement is striking. Here, in stark contrast to the intricate waste disposal system of Basata a few miles down the road, the conventional waste management system of one of the world's most well-known luxury hotels is evident - it is dumped at the foot of the mountains and left for the Bedouin's goats to graze or choke on. Some of these hotels do have waste disposal technology, but have chosen not to use it, as the manager of the Salah ed-Din Hotel in Taba, pointed out: "it is fairly costly for us to employ someone to work on the shredding machine and in other recycling jobs, it is cheaper to dump the rubbish in the valley across the road where local people make use of it."

Bedouin land

For the developers, the tourists and the Egyptian authorities, Sinai is a no-man's land, ready to be 'developed', despite the fact that there are currently around 15,000 Bedouin living along the coastal area set to be developed for tourism. Although their ancestors have lived a nomadic existence in the Sinai since the time of Mohammed the tourism plans do not mention them at all.BedouinBedouin with camel, Sinai© Jeffrey Rotman/Still Pictures

That one of the main benefits of tourism to the local Bedouin community is that they can graze their goats and sheep on the rubbish dump is indicative of the relationship between the Bedouin and the current tourism strategy. Already, the livestock that the Bedouin depend on for their subsistence livelihoods are dying from diseases spread by flies attracted to the rubbish.

Bedouin women are unable to walk around freely now that they are obliged to stay out of sight of male Egyptian migrant workers and tourists. The women have also found themselves forced to search the rubbish for scraps of metal and cardboard to build houses in an attempt to gain legal and rights and fight off land-grabbing by foreign investors.

The authorities maintain that Environmental Impact Assessments have been carried out in all these areas, which begs the question - who is doing them and what are they worth? At the moment, the future for Sinai looks dim, and Basata shines out as a clean drop in a very polluted ocean.

Sherif believes that even large resorts could implement the environmental techniques that are followed in Basata.

"I think Egypt should be strong enough to choose the type of tourist we want. If I had built a disco I would have attracted party-goers. But if I build an ecological place, I attract environmentally conscious people.

Even if the number of tourists that would want to visit environmentally-run tourism projects equals one per cent of the world's tourists, Egypt couldn't cater to the demand. Sinai needs a focus so why don't we try and corner that market?"

Sherif El-Ghamrawy can be contacted at Basata, Nuweiba-Taba Rd. Tel/Fax: 0020 62 500481.

Heba Aziz is studying for a doctorate in the effects of tourism on the Bedouin in Egypt. Sue Wheat is an environmental journalist based in London.