On the Red Sea coast, the visionary town of El Gouna was founded with a mission: to do its part to protect the environment.
As I sat in the welcome shade of a cluster of palm trees, my eyes drifted across the calm waters of the lagoon in front of me – caught by a row of neatly labeled terra cotta bins.
Honestly, when I imagined my trip to the Red Sea region of Egypt, I imagined swimming in warm, crystal clear waters and discovering vibrant coral reefs surrounded by brightly colored fish. While I was able to do all of this, what fascinated me most was not the beauty of the ocean, but El Gouna’s impressive commitment to sustainability. The dumpsters did not detract from the natural beauty of the Egyptian resort town, but were a welcome sight.
In November 2022, the 27th United Nations Climate Change Conference, commonly known as COP27, will be held across the water in the famous Egyptian resort town of Sharm El Sheikh. What many visitors don’t know is that on the country’s west coast, El Gouna has been focused on sustainable development since the COP’s inception.
“Creating a closed, self-sustaining ecosystem has always been El Gouna’s goal,” says Omar El Hamamsy, CEO of Orascom Development, the construction and management company of Switzerland-based El Gouna. Conceived in 1989 by Egyptian entrepreneur and Orascom engineer Samih Sawiris as a waterside idyll, it takes its name from the Arabic word for “lagoon. It’s an apt nickname: a chic community of vacationers and residents built on 20 islands and a turquoise lagoon, connected by canals and lined with promenades and sandy beaches. Visitors can stay at one of 18 hotels; play on two golf courses (irrigated with reclaimed water and the town’s own desalination plant); enjoy water sports like kitesurfing, windsurfing or scuba diving; or mingle with celebrities at glitzy events like the El Gouna Film Festival (the next one is scheduled for October 2022).
But it’s not just a glitzy resort anymore. In addition to hotels and golf courses, the town now boasts a hospital, library, school, university and place of worship, serving a resident population of about 24,000. The community even boasts its own Egyptian Premier League soccer team, El Gouna FC.
More importantly, in the more than 30 years since its inception, the town has been acclaimed for its commitment to the environment, and in 2014, El Gouna became the first city in Africa and the Arab region to receive the UN-sponsored Global Green City Award, which recognizes cities that have made great efforts and progress in environmental sustainability and green communities.
Prior to this, in 2007, El Gouna partnered with the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Economic Cooperation and Development and commercial tour operators Travco and TUI to launch (and pilot) the Green Star Hotels program, the Middle East’s first national tourism eco-certification program. The initiative aims to address the environmental risks (such as pollution and increased water scarcity) posed by Egypt’s rapidly expanding tourism industry – a country that El Hamamsy notes has “historically been unoriented toward sustainable and environmentally friendly design and architecture.
One of the first things I noticed as a guest of El Gouna was the large number of designated recycling points, a relative rarity in Egypt. Then there were the electric and solar-powered tuk-tuks carrying people around. And Africa’s first electric bike-sharing system, launched in 2017. In Nubian-style buildings designed to maximize passive cooling, I saw signs inviting me to minimize the hotel’s consumption of water and detergents, eco-faucets for rooms to reduce water use, and a distinct lack of plastic straws and packaging.
“We think the best combination is not ‘in person’ but through many micro-practices that invite guests to join our efforts,” El Hamamsy says.
But most of the environmental work happens behind the scenes.
Zainub Ibrahim, a professor at Algonquin College’s School of Hospitality and Tourism in Canada, wrote a paper on tourism development and the environment along Egypt’s Red Sea coast, which includes “sewage treatment plants, recycling and solid waste. Treatment plants, using locally sourced biodegradable materials”.
More specifically, the resort town has a zero-waste system, which means that more than 85 percent of its waste is reused and recycled; it recycles 100 percent of its water – a process I was able to see as I climbed a ladder overlooking the huge reservoir of its wastewater management plant. It treats about 6,700 cubic meters of wastewater per day, mainly for irrigation. Two desalination plants (some of the first in the Red Sea and the first to utilize energy-efficient low-temperature desalination) meet 95 percent of El Gouna’s drinking water needs.
The town also has an on-site recycling plant that converts all plastic into garbage bags, clothes and hangers; and, as I discovered at lunch one day, 40 percent of its food is sourced locally. el Gouna farms play a key role in the latter effort, producing olive oil, dates, jojoba oil (for skin and hair products), wool and meat (visitors can arrange trips by talking to hotel reception (talk to the hotel reception to arrange a trip). The town’s eight lagoons at the fish farm provide fresh seafood, while the hotel’s various gardens grow herbs and vegetables: think fragrant thyme, basil, mint and coriander; lots of garlic and shallots; and trees full of pomegranates, mangoes and figs.
The resort’s eco-friendly philosophy attracts residents and eco-conscious entrepreneurs alike. While browsing her health boutique by the marina one afternoon, I met Norshek Fawzy, co-founder of local health and beauty brand Norshek, who came to El Gouna from Cairo because of the sustainable lifestyle it offers and the progressive attitude of the locals. “This place brings people and people make this place,” says Fawzy, who launched Norshek with her husband, Nabil, in 2020.
This lifestyle and attitude also extends to a sense of community – a value that is particularly evident in El Gouna’s Egyptian House, a shop-cum-workshop located at the Abu Tig Quay. The space brings together five brands that help women in El Gouna and the surrounding area generate income through the sale of sustainable handicrafts, while reviving traditional Egyptian craft skills.
One of the brands is Malaika Linens, which teaches women hand embroidery and entrepreneurship. Co-founder Goya Gallagher says they were led to open their first Egyptian store here because of El Gouna’s commitment to the environment. “We have always shared El Gouna’s vision of sustainability – social and environmental sustainability,” she said. “For example, we believe in producing products that last a lifetime and don’t need to be replaced. We are 95 percent plastic-free and are working on the last 5 percent!”
This interest in community-centered projects seems to be in the water in El Gouna, where Fawzy explains that the town’s annual Earth Week is “entirely community-initiated.” The event, which usually takes place in April, includes a community beach cleanup, upcycling workshops and eco-tech talks at GSpace, the entrepreneurship center.
“The place brings the people, and the people make the place”
Despite all these efforts to be green, El Gouna’s management team has acknowledged several elephants in its room: the tension between the proposition of creating a sustainable resort town and the destruction of the pristine landscape needed to build it; and the fact that most vacationers arrive by air – notoriously not an environmentally friendly mode of transportation.
“At a high level, human intervention always causes the initial damage,” El Hamamsy admits.
The solution was one of El Gouna’s biggest goals: to become the first carbon-neutral town in Africa. It’s a long-term project, conceived in 2014 in partnership with Egypt’s Ministry of National Environmental Affairs. I was impressed by El Gouna’s pioneering approach to voluntary carbon neutrality, even though it is not required by law,” says former Environment Minister Laila Iskandar. It represents a recognition of the importance of operating a destination that is responsible for people and the planet.”
She told me that progress already made toward this goal includes “identifying major greenhouse gas emission sources and reduction measures …… energy efficiency of buildings, electric vehicles, efficient and low carbon management of water waste and water supply and recycling.”
However, Covid-19 put a wrench in the works. “One of the things we wanted to do was to accurately measure our carbon footprint and be more specific about how our measures offset transportation emissions,” El Hamamsy said. “In the interest of transparency, we haven’t managed to fully quantify it, due to the distortions of the past few years, when many Egyptian tourists arrived by car.” A new professional committee will lead the post-epidemic phase of the project – outlining new initiatives and setting target dates.
However, one step on the agenda is to increase the capacity of the El Gouna solar power plant (opening in 2021) and expand mangroves to prevent coastal erosion, sequester carbon, filter pollutants and provide breeding grounds for fish and clean waters for corals. Ibrahim explained, “These measures are particularly important in this ecologically sensitive area rich in water biodiversity.”
El Hamamsy added: “We hope that this town will exist for decades to come …… The only way to do this is to be completely sustainable and environmentally friendly, “Ultimately, the planet is something that we all have a responsibility to protect. We have to play our part.”