Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home page No. 43, Spring/Summer 1998
Ecotourism in Drylands

International cooperation and sustainable tourism in the Gulf of Aqaba

by Robin Twite

"EcoPeace is a consortium of Egyptian, Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) jointly working to promote sustainable development in the Middle East. With funding from the Heinrich Boll Foundation of Germany, EcoPeace has begun a three-year ecotourism project in the Gulf of Aqaba."


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A hundred years ago, the Gulf of Aqaba in the Red Sea was a place of utter remoteness and tranquility. On the West were the mountains of the Sinai Peninsula, on the east those of the Arabian Desert. The many-colored granites of the steep slopes contrasted with the deep blue of the sea, beneath which teemed the variegated life of the coral reefs lining both shores. The monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai -- where, tradition states, Moses received the Commandments -- was the only place of note in the whole area. Aqaba itself was a tiny settlement with a small Turkish fort. Few travelers disturbed the serenity of the region as it drowsed in the heat.

Today all this has changed, and is changing ever faster. In 1947 Israel reached the Gulf and claimed a few kilometers of coastline. Here, the new town of Eilat was rapidly completed, a harbor built, and a determined effort made to attract tourists to new seaside hotels. Jordan, finding in Aqaba its only access to the sea, began to rapidly develop the town, its harbor and the surrounding coast. For their part the Egyptians too began to think of the tourist potential of the region, though they had done little to tap it before the Israelis occupied the Sinai in 1967. When the Israelis left the region in 1978, Egyptian development of the Sinai began, and continues with ever-increasing momentum.

In light of the threat posed by this rapid development, there is widespread anxiety about the future of the Gulf. This is particularly true with regard to tourism. Currently, plans exist to increase the number of hotel rooms from about 8,000 in the Israeli portion of the Gulf to 12,000 or more (all on a mere 7 kilometers of shoreline). In Egypt, approximately 40,000 rooms are planned to be added to the 15,000 or so currently available, while in Aqaba itself the number of rooms will increase from 700 to 5,000. Of course the building of hotels is only part of the story. In addition, major infrastructure projects currently underway include plans for the development of additional port facilities at Aqaba.

EcoPeace and ecotourism in the Gulf of Aqaba

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EcoPeace is a consortium of Egyptian, Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) jointly working to promote sustainable development in the Middle East. With funding from the Heinrich Boll Foundation of Germany, EcoPeace has begun a three-year ecotourism project in the Gulf of Aqaba. The goal of the Egyptian, Israeli and Jordanian NGOs who formulated the project is to reduce the potential negative impact of mass tourism -- unplanned building of hotels and tourist infrastructure, inadequate arrangements for waste disposal, overuse of energy and water resources, and poorly supervised tourist activity of various kinds -- so that the unique environment and biodiversity of the Gulf, the very basis for its touristic appeal, will be preserved. EcoPeace's strategy is to work with, influence, and assist the local tourist industry to develop and promote sustainable managed tourism in the area. Specifically, the EcoPeace project aims to help the tourist industry make better use of resources, especially water and energy, and to make tourism industry staff, local authorities, local residents, and tourists themselves aware of the need for positive action on their part if tourism in the region is to become truly sustainable.

Working with local, regional and international organizations and public authorities, EcoPeace is developing broad-based, cross-sectoral and international partnerships for effective action to promote ecotourism. Specific groups being targeted by the project include hotel management, managers of marine and diving clubs, travel agents, tourist guides, local authority staff (particularly educators), and tourists.

The initial stages of the project, launched in January 1997, primarily involved establishment of an infrastructure for project implementation. Three leading NGOs, the Egyptian Youth for Environment and Development, the Arava Institute in Israel, and the Royal Jordanian Diving Society, undertook to work with EcoPeace headquarters on the project. One coordinator from each of these NGOs was appointed, with a project manager working out of EcoPeace headquarters in Jerusalem. The coordinators established three offices - one at the Youth Hostel in Sharm al Sheik, Egypt, at the southern entrance to the Gulf; one at Ketura, Israel, home of the Arava Institute, about 30 kilometers north of Eilat; and one in the town of Aqaba, Jordan. The activities so far undertaken to implement the project are best summarized by country.

Project activities in Egypt

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The Egyptian office has concentrated on encouraging hotels to adopt environmentally sound practices and on creating public awareness. Management and staff have been contacted at all hotels in Sharm al Sheik and most other tourist resorts in the area. A scheme to give recognition to hotels that meet agreed environmental standards is being evolved in cooperation with the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism. It is modeled on the proposals put forward by the International Hotels Environmental Initiative. The concept was introduced to local hotel management in autumn 1997, with a seminar on the subject being held in Sharm al Sheik in November. The office has also initiated a project to recycle hotel wastes (something which can be economically profitable in Egypt). The project will be undertaken with the participation of firms from Cairo specializing in glass and plastic recycling. Courses on water and energy conservation have also been planned. The level of response from the hotel industry has been high.

To create public awareness, the Egyptian office has worked directly with tourists and the tourist industry, and has also prepared a source book to educate those in the industry about sustainable tourism. This guide will be widely distributed among hotel staff in the region.

Project activities in Israel

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In Israel, the project office has conducted an extensive survey of Eilat's hotel industry and various hotels' environmental awareness. Every major hotel was visited and detailed audits were conducted of five hotels belonging to the Isrotel Group. These were submitted to the Group's management. A similar audit is to be undertaken of hotels from the Radisson Group.

A detailed study of the long-term carrying capacity of Eilat was launched in November 1997. It is designed to help determine how many tourists the area can absorb without environmental damage. This study is being conducted in response to statements by local officials that they foresaw continuous development of hotels and other facilities in the town's very limited area. The results will be available in spring 1998.

Many of the Eilat office's activities have focused on raising public awareness, particularly among youth groups and in schools. Some of this activity was carried out in cooperation with the Israeli Society for the Protection of Nature office in Eilat and some with other NGOs active in areas such as the protection of coral reefs or the study of migratory birds in the region. A number of beach clean-ups have also been undertaken. One of these involved working with divers from Jordan.

Project activities in Jordan and internationally

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In Jordan, project activities have involved a variety of local and regional institutions active in the town of Aqaba and its vicinity. Here, too, work has been done with hotel management. A special feature of work in Aqaba was the successful effort to clean up the public beaches.

Protection of the coral reefs is a top priority in all three countries, and representatives of the Project staff have taken part in an intensive course on coral protection organized in Aqaba.

The Jerusalem office of EcoPeace has focused on publicizing EcoPeace among interested parties abroad. EcoPeace representatives have made presentations at a variety of conferences and at UN headquarters in New York. Material for distribution to tourist agencies and others has been produced in English, and more will soon be available in Arabic and Hebrew.


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The project has not been easy to carry out. Adverse political developments in the region have admittedly made cooperation among the partners more difficult, but have not prevented progress from being made. Like the tourist industry overall, the project suffered from the damage done by the massacre of tourists in Luxor, Egypt, and by bombing incidents in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Hotel managers and others in the industry, worried about very low occupancy rates, have often been disinclined to make even minimal investment in long-term environmentally orientated schemes. Some might argue that a decline in the number of tourists will eventually lead to a slow-down in environmentally negative building projects, giving ecotourism supporters a chance to promote their viewpoint before mass tourism returns to the region in full force. However, these potential "advantages" have not yet become apparent, and in any case the aim of this project is to promote both development and environmental sustainability, not to see one succeed at the expense of the other.

So, in spite of all difficulties, the project is still going solidly forward. Cooperation is still possible, and the various parties involved are fully committed to the project's success. All fully recognize how much there is to be done, and how crucial it is to act now, if future tourism in the Gulf of Aqaba is to be environmentally sustainable.

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Author Information

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Robin Twite is Project Manager of the EcoPeace Sustainable Tourism Project and can be reached at the following address:

P.O. Box 55302
East Jerusalem
Tel: +972 (2) 6260841/3
Fax: +972 (2) 6260840

Additional web resources

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Map of the Red Sea
This map, from the Perry Castañeda library at the University of Texas-Austin, shows the entire Red Sea area, including the Gulf of Aqaba with the towns of Eilat, Israel; Aqaba, Jordan; and Sharm al Sheik, Egypt. File size 319K, image size 888x1482 pixels.

Map of the Sinai Peninsula
This shaded relief map of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula (also from the University of Texas-Austin) shows the Gulf of Aqaba, along the Peninsula's eastern side, in somewhat more detail than the map cited above. File size 314K, image size 996x1156 pixels.

Partnerships in Development 1998
This Israeli government document, housed on the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs web site, was presented by the Government of Israel to the Middle East/North Africa Economic Conference held in Doha, Qatar, November 1997. A major focus of the document is on Israel's approach to areas of regional cooperation, and Chapter 2 focuses specifically on the Gulf of Aqaba.

Rio+5 Report: Sustainable Development in Jordan
This document, from the Earth Council's Earth Network for Sustainable Development web site, includes a case study on Jordan's Gulf of Aqaba Environmental Action Plan (GAEAP). The report was produced as part of preparations for the Earth Council's Rio+5 Forum, held in 1997.

65 tourist projects...(Egyptian investment in the Gulf of Aqaba)
This brief 1-page document dated June 5 1997 comes from the Egyptian State Information Service. It provides a quick overview of Egyptian development plans in the Gulf of Aqaba.

AQABA, Trade and Environment
This is a case study from the Trade and Environment Database (TED), a project spearheaded by the American University, Washington, D.C. TED is a collection of trade and environment cases, each coded on 28 different criteria and accompanied by a written report. This November 1996 draft report provides much information and analysis on factors affecting the possibility of sustainable development in this fragile ecosystem. (One caveat: there seems to be no link from this document directly back to the TED home page, which can be found at

International Coral Reef Initiative Report to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development
The ICRI was formed in 1994, and this report was submitted to UNCSD in 1996. While not specifically focused on the Gulf of Aqaba, the document contains information of value to those who wish to learn more about coral reefs in general. An accompanying (undated) document on this site:
The State of the Reefs - ICRI's Major Concern
does contain some specific comments about the coral reefs in the Gulf of Aqaba.

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