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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.

“I think we owe it to the environment,” said El Sayed. “We don’t want to just use the environment, we want to give back to it.”

But eco-conscious or not, El Sayed worries that encouraging more visitors to the region will only leave a larger footprint on the natural environment.

Nowhere is the potential for damage more evident than the White Desert, a short drive south of Bahariya. The lunar-like landscape of the White Desert is popular with campers, who set up along the tall outcroppings of cream-colored chalky rock.

The White Desert may be the crown jewel of Egypt’s safari destinations, but protected by weak regulations, it is now littered with the remnants of old campfires and garbage.

“People camp there and don’t clean up after they leave. They leave plastic bags, paper and cans,” said Dina Mahmoud, a Cairo-based tour guide who organizes an annual clean up of the White Desert.

Last year alone, Mahmoud’s group collected more than four tons of waste left by campers.

Egypt’s government took notice in 2002, declaring the White Desert a protected national park and introducing heavy fines for litterers.

Last year the government went further, setting up ticket fees and delineating paths for safari guides to drive on to protect the desert’s brittle white rocks.

Mahmoud El Kaissouni, environmental adviser to Egypt’s minister of tourism, wants to eventually limit the number of tourists who can enter the park each day.

“Less tourism through our fragile desert is better for us in the long run,” said El Kaissouni.

But El Kaissouni admits that long-term sustainability of the environment is only as good as the enforcement of the law, which in the White Desert is weak at best.

Guides often bring tourists into the park off-road through the back, driving over the rocks, avoiding both the ticket booth and watchful eyes of park rangers.

Although 120,000 entrance tickets to the White Desert were sold last year, El Kaissouni estimates that the actual number of tourists entering the park is triple that figure.

At his eco-lodge in Bahariya, El Sayed accepts that the government can’t easily control the entire White Desert. But he also doubts that Egypt would ever sacrifice tourism dollars to promote a greener industry with fewer visitors.

“Real ecotourism is against tourism. The government cares about money coming in and its customers being happy, and that’s it,” said El Sayed.

Others in Bahariya are equally skeptical. Abdel Salem is grateful that so many of his friends now have jobs, but he worries for the future of the oasis.

“Bahariya was like utopia. But tourism is changing it for the worse,” he said. “It will be very sad when the Hilton hotels start coming here.”