Egypt's rebounding tourism threatens Red Sea coral

Scientists consider the Red Sea's reefs the most climate change-resilient coral but say they are still under threat.
Friday 10/05/2019
A fragile ecosystem. Fish swimming off the coast of Egypt's Red Sea resort of Hurghada. (AFP)
A fragile ecosystem. Fish swimming off the coast of Egypt's Red Sea resort of Hurghada. (AFP)

HURGHADA, Egypt - In serene, turquoise waters off Egypt's Red Sea coast, scuba divers ease among delicate pink jellyfish and admire coral, signs of a rebounding tourism sector that threatens the fragile marine ecosystem.

The Red Sea is a top scuba diving destination but Egypt's tourism sector was buffeted by security shocks through much of this decade, before recovery began in since 2017.

A diving instructor in Hurghada, a top resort, warned that the rebound brought dangers for the coral.

Before the decline in visitors "there was way too much activity because it was so cheap," he said, asking to remain anonymous. "In some areas, they've disappeared, although in others we see they're coming back."

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) said coral reefs are among "the most beautiful, biologically diverse and delicate ecosystems in the world." It describes the resources as vital to maintaining food supply and protecting shorelines of low-lying island countries.

Along the seafront in Hurghada, bazaars and resorts offer unbeatable prices to attract budget-conscious European visitors to a country whose vital tourism sector was battered by a 2011 uprising and multiple jihadist attacks.

Following the 2011 overthrow of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak, tourist arrivals in Egypt plunged. The sector took a further beating in 2015 when jihadists blew up a Russian plane leaving another major Red Sea resort, Sharm el-Sheikh, killing 224 people.

However, the contribution of Egypt's tourism sector to GDP rose 16.5% in 2018 to $29.6 billion, the highest level since 2010, the World Travel and Tourism Council said.

German tourist Daniel, 29, said he was partly attracted to Egypt by the low prices. "It's a lot cheaper than the Caribbean," he said as he basked in the sun on a private beach in Hurghada.

Flippers on their feet and air tanks on their backs, the mostly European tourists swim in tranquil waters just off Hurghada. Ten metres below the surface, clownfish and butterflyfish swim among green and purple coral. It's "very beautiful," said an Estonian tourist as she clambered back onto the boat.

The UNEP estimates that about 20% of the world's coral reefs have been destroyed and another 60% are under threat from climate change, overfishing and tourism.

Scientists consider the Red Sea's reefs the most climate change-resilient coral but say they are still under threat.

"The revival of tourism in Egypt is a good thing but it has increased pressure" on the reefs, said Heba Shawky, managing director of the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association.

The group was founded in 1992 by diving professionals worried about the potential impact of mass tourism in the region.

Around 1,700 tourist boats operate along Egypt's Red Sea coast, provincial officials said. The Suez Canal Authority said 18,174 commercial vessels passed through the Suez Canal in 2018.

Shawky said the NGO has set up approximately 1,200 buoys at various dive sites to prevent the use of anchors, which damage coral. However, she said much remains to be done, such as reducing the number and size of dive boats, which can be up to 50 metres long.

"It's about limiting the number of users per day to tackle the problem of the growing number of boats," Shawky said.

Red Sea province Governor Ahmed Abdallah agreed, saying: "We are making every effort to preserve the marine environment and stop any pollution affecting the reefs."

Abdallah pointed to the absence of highly polluting industries, such as steel, cement or ceramics production in the region. He also noted the province's decision to ban single-use plastics, which are highly damaging to marine life.

With up to 12 million tonnes of plastic entering the oceans every year, the UNEP said marine plastic pollution is one of the most pressing environmental challenges.

"We are making a lot of effort, but we need to do more," said Mahmoud Hanafy, a professor in marine biology at Suez Canal University and an adviser to Shawky's association.

He urged authorities to declare some reefs protected sites to prevent them being "over-exploited." He also suggested following the lead of Australia and the Maldives by creating artificial reefs, sometimes with 3D printing, to ease pressure on natural coral.

Shawky contended that there is no contradiction between protecting the environment and supporting tourism. Unlike other parts of Egypt, "we don't have pyramids or temples," she said.

"We have living resources under water. So by preserving the environment, we support the tourism industry,” she said.

(Agence France-Presse)