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Desert ecotourism: what's in it for Egypt?

Does the downside of popularity with Western tourists outweigh the benefits? Depends who you talk to.

BAWATI, Egypt — The windswept peak of Black Mountain could be the perfect place to watch a sunset. Normally quiet and isolated from the rest of the world, the narrow ridge overlooks Bahariya Oasis, a lush depression of palm trees in the middle of Egypt’s remote Western Desert.

But everyday, minutes before the sun dips below the horizon, buses and SUVs packed with foreign tourists climb the barren rocks of the mountain. The tranquility is disrupted into a loud jumble of languages, as tourists snap photos and toss rocks off the cliff, before hurtling off to the next stop on their guided oasis tour.

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.

“Bahariya may be changing, but we need even more tourists if we will survive,” said Assam Tawkif, a tailor who sells tents, cushions, and sleeping bags to local safari companies.

“The government should be promoting Bahariya to get even more people here,” said Tawkif.

Though most of Egypt’s 11 million foreign visitors head straight for the ancient monuments and Red Sea beaches, nearly 10 percent come for the deserts and oases, according Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism.

Eco-lodges have emerged throughout Egypt as a green solution to offset the high number of vacationers.

Tamer El Sayed developed Bahariya’s first eco-lodge in 2005: Qasr el Bawity, a plush 34-room hotel carved into a high ridge on the outskirts of Bawati. The hotel was built entirely of local materials, employs a local Bedouin staff, and separates and treats waste into fertilizer for palm trees in the oasis.