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Destination Marsa Alam
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 23 - 08 - 2016

Marsa Alam, a city in south-eastern Egypt on the shores of the Red Sea is some 60m from the water and features scenery and nature reserves that could be new magnets for tourism.
The reserves include the Samaday or Darafin Reserve and the Wadi Al-Gamal Reserve that runs along the Red Sea Coast and includes the Wadi Al-Gamal Islands, coral reefs, and collections of marine flora.
On a par with the beauty of the Ras Mohamed Reserve in Sinai, there is also Mount Hamata nearby and a fresh water spring that feeds into the sea. The region is also a natural landing spot for migratory birds.
These and other features make Marsa Alam a very attractive tourist destination, said Atef Abdel-Latif, a member of the Association of Investors in Marsa Alam and South Sinai, a business group determined to develop the area.
Abdel-Latif believes that in the wake of the current slowdown in tours to North Sinai, the Marsa Alam area should be developed. It has more than 450km of coastline, but only 10 per cent is under development, he said.
It had natural treasures that were greater than competing tourist destinations, but it urgently needed to be developed.
However, bureaucratic and other procedures had been holding the area back, Abdel-Latif said. An investor seeking to set up a hotel would need to go to Hurghada to obtain various documents and stamps, before going to Al-Qoseir and then to Cairo to face three different committees to get the necessary permits and approvals.
“Our problem is not a lack of Egyptian or foreign investors,” Abdel-Latif said. “It is procedures and regulations. We need to look at other countries that have much less tourist potential than we do but still manage to surpass us.”
“The Kuwaiti Khurafi Group built the Marsa Alam Airport, and that has been it in terms of development. When there was a problem with the runway, the airport was closed for several days. We need a larger airport that the state should build,” he said.
To foster development in Marsa Alam, Abdel-Latif proposed lifting restrictions and drafting a plan for infrastructure that would connect the city with Upper Egypt, Hurghada, and Cairo. There should be a network of roads, railways, and buses to serve this promising area, he said.
He said that development was an integrated process that required cooperation between entrepreneurs in the area and the regional governor in order to facilitate procedures and address obstacles.
A plan could be drafted to bring in five million tourists by 2022 by marketing two-week package tours that started in Marsa Alam and then moved on to Luxor and Aswan, he said. However, this would entail proper roads, secure transportation, telephone services, and a new airport to ensure the plan's targets were reached.
Abdel-Latif emphasised that the primary factor in tourism was the human element. Each one million tourists could provide 200 direct jobs, as well as many other indirect jobs that would help to reduce the area's unemployment.
At present, the environmental affairs department was one of the biggest obstacles to tourism, he said. Environment officials might come to a site where a hotel was being built and file a report without making further inquiries, Abdel-Latif said, even though the investor responsible had spent LE1 million and had been working on the hotel for years.
As a result of a negative environment report, the construction would be suspended and the matter would go to court, where it could take a year for the investor concerned to obtain a ruling allowing him to continue, he said, making potential investors reluctant to invest in the area.
“To resolve such problems, I propose forming a committee of representatives from the environmental sector, the tourism sector, and the governorate to examine project impacts,” Abdel-Latif said. “This would mean that reports would not be filed based on the whims of civil servants.”
He said that new hospitals could be established in Marsa Alam, like those in Hurghada, along with tourism services and commercial zones. Attention should also be paid to the local Bedouin tribes that work in the handicraft industries.
There are also 141 types of indigenous flora and fauna in the area, from mangroves to marsh grasses to palm trees, all of them serving the economy.
Asked about the size of the investment needed to develop the area, Abdel-Latif suggested that the development of a marina could be done over ten years at a cost of some US$1 billion and that this could eventually rival the French Riviera.
The Port Ghaleb Resort in Marsa Alam, established with investments of $1.2 million, already features a variety of marine life and coral reefs that attract diving tours.
Marsa Alam also offers hang-gliding in the nearby mountains and safaris for stargazers. From the Pharaonic to the Roman eras, Marsa Alam was known for its goldmines, and traces from this period are still visible today in the form of ancient rock inscriptions. The ancient quest for gold is also continuing at the nearby Al-Sukari goldmine.
Abdel-Latif urged the cutting of red tape for investors. Things should be made clear from the start, he said, so that ten years later a new law did not compel them to make additional payments based on new tax rates, for example. The state should work harder to attract Arab, foreign, and Egyptian investors.
“To finance projects, the banks currently charge 14 to 15 per cent on loans in Egyptian pounds and 6.5 to seven per cent on loans in dollars. In other countries, the interest rate on dollar-denominated loans is only two to three per cent. The current rates are unreasonable for projects in desert areas that require development. It costs $75 per metre to set up sewage, water, electricity, and water desalinisation facilities, and investors are only allowed to build on about 15 per cent of the total area,” Abdel-Latif said.
Development was about creating jobs and attracting investment without inflating land prices, he said. Prices should be set based on location, amenities, and proximity to beaches, he added.
Only about 11 per cent of the 450km coastline to Halayeb and Shalatin is sandy and thus appropriate for tourism. The rest is rocky, and the environmental agencies have refused to allow any activity in the area to avoid impacting the marine environment.
Abdel-Latif suggested that these agencies look at what other countries like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, South Africa, the UK, Australia, and the US have done with such rocky coastlines, notably their attempts to improve them for tourism while respecting environmental standards.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

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