Egypt’s north-western coast promises to become tourism magnet

Friday 25/03/2016
Desert safari driver Ahmed Bakrin building a small fire to make mint tea during a trek outside the oasis of Siwa. Cairo

Cairo - In 2000, the space separating Beausite, one of the oldest ho­tels in north-western Egypt’s coastal city of Marsa Matrouh, and the beach was empty. Now, restaurants, diving and tourist ser­vice centres and entertainment fa­cilities fill the area.
Around Beausite, hotels, restau­rants, parks and cafés pop up like mushrooms after the rain, reflect­ing mounting interest from tourism investors.
Interest extends to other parts of north-western Egypt, including Siwa oasis, a fertile basin 25 metres below sea level, brimming with ol­ive and palm trees about 50km from the border with Libya.
With Egypt’s traditional tourism magnets Sharm el-Sheikh, Hurgha­da and Luxor reaching saturation points in investment possibilities, new opportunities seem to be open­ing along Egypt’s north-western coast and Siwa, reflecting investors’ desire to find fresh locations.
With such interest, it came as no surprise when Egyptian Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou recently described this area as a “gold mine”.
“Almost all tourism investors ex­pect this area to enjoy a great fu­ture,” said Ahmed Shahin, the chief executive officer of Azmeel, a major real estate developer. “This is why everybody races to gain a foothold there.”
The shift from the traditional tourism investment hubs to the north-western coast and Siwa start­ed quietly ten years ago.
Marsa Matrouh, which overlooks the Mediterranean, had for decades been a solely Egyptian resort, even though the city contains some of Egypt’s most beautiful beaches. The turquoise waters and soft white sands of the beaches had captivated millions of Egyptians for years.
Siwa, too, is a must-visit. One of the world’s last pristine oases, it is home to spectacular natural land­scapes, ancient historical ruins and unique cultural traditions.
Thought to be the site of the Ora­cle of Amon, whom Alexander the Great consulted before continuing his Persian conquest, Siwa remains much as it was centuries ago. Ma­jestic rock formations, lush groves and brilliant salt lakes that have in­spired people since they settled in the area 12,000 years ago continue to enchant those who set foot in the secluded area of Egypt’s Western desert.
Tourism investors and real es­tate developers want to put the city and the oasis on the international tourism map. They are getting sup­port from a government thirsty for investments to perk up a tourism sector hard hit by the turmoil that followed the 2011 popular uprising and most recently by the bombing of a Russian passenger plane in No­vember 2015.
In October 2015, the government announced a plan to attract about $22 billion in invest­ments to Marsa Matrouh and Siwa.
There is no specific esti­mate of the total investment made in the areas in recent years, although some place them at hundreds of mil­lions of dollars.
Major real estate and tourism developers are investing large sums in north-western Egypt. UAE-based Emaar Properties is constructing a series of international hotels in Sidi Abdel Rahman, a compelling area 30km west of Marsa Matrouh city. Emaar is also building hundreds of villas and chalets in the area, promising to turn it into an international tour­ist destination.
Magdi Selim, the former head of the state-run Tour­ism Promotion Authority, said whether Egypt’s north-western region will develop into a tourism investment magnet depends on the gov­ernment’s ability to provide the area with the necessary infrastructure.
“There is a need for a road network that eases move­ment to, from and inside this area,” Selim said.
This is not only about tourism, however. It is also about Egypt’s national secu­rity. The government says development of the vast western desert, turning it into a centre of agricultural, indus­trial, commercial and tourist activi­ties, would prompt millions of citi­zens in the densely populated Nile Valley and Delta to move in, which will make the desert function as a buffer zone against lawlessness in neighbouring Libya.
Some 400,000 people live in Mar­sa Matrouh, although the province covers an area of 166,000 sq. km, al­most twice the size of Ireland. Only 23,000 people live in Siwa oasis, which includes 1,050 sq. km.
“True, plans are made for this area to attract millions of residents but it also represents the future of the tourism sector in this country,” said Abdel Nasser Taha, a represent­ative of the International Federa­tion of Real Estate, which networks professionals associated with real estate transactions.
“New interest in the area prom­ises to alter it in a matter of a few years.”