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Egypt is known for being a sea, sun and sand destination, and along with some ancient temples and tombs, tourism has traditionally been one the country’s top revenue earners.

But at a time of political instability and lacking security, the unique combination of beaches and history is no longer enough to lure tourists. The country’s tourism officials seem to be adopting a new strategy: Trying to establish the country as a destination for green tourism.

Since the 2011 revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s tourism industry has been in a precipitous decline. Revenues peaked in 2010, reaching US$12.5 billion, accounting directly and indirectly for 11.9 percent of GDP and 12.6 percent of employment. Last year, revenues from the industry reached just $5.9 billion.

“If you’re going to stick a sticker saying “please save water,” I don't see that it will make a difference.”

According to the official government statistics agency CAPMAS, January 2014 arrivals are down 28.9 percent from the same time last year, while total nights stayed are down 35.5 percent.

Over the past year, Egypt has taken several steps to inch towards greener tourism. The government has signed a UN convention on ethical tourism, taken a green certification program national and supported a plan to convert El Gouna resort into a carbon neutral city.

While these efforts may have yielded good will, little practical change can be seen on the ground so far. Meanwhile, plans to begin allowing the import of coal to power cement factories seem to be moving forward, despite objections from the environment minister and warnings of the havoc this would wreak on Red Sea destinations such as Ain Sokhna and Safaga, where some of Egypt’s main ports are located.

Green steps

In March 2013, Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou announced plans to take the Green Star Hotel program, a certification scheme for hotels, to a national level by the end of 2013. In January, the government signed a global ethical tourism agreement, affirming, among other things, that tourism should safeguard the national environment, and that the state should prioritize green projects.

Later that month, the tourism minister was joined by the minister of environment as well as European officials for a ceremony to sign an agreement to transform the Red Sea resort of El Gouna into a carbon neutral city.

The motivation for these moves is clear. According to some estimates, green tourism is growing three to four times faster than conventional travel. Studies show that more than a third of travelers prefer to go environmentally-friendly and are willing to pay a premium of 25-40 percent to visit green destinations.

“This is the name of the game,” Elhamy ElZayat, head of the Egyptian Tourism Federation, says of green tourism, adding that it’s what “more and more tourists are looking for.”

Proponents of green tourism also argue that introducing more environmentally sound practices into the industry has the potential to create a ripple effect, bringing more sustainable practices into other sectors of the economy. With so many travelers demanding environmentally friendly destinations, tourism is unique in having an immediate financial incentive to change business practices.

It is therefore relatively easy to convince a hotel to make investments in green technologies like solar water heating or smart lighting systems.

“It’s a very good opportunity to get things rolling and to make a lighthouse for the Egyptian industry as a whole,” says Stefanie Reiher, head of the green growth sector at the Egyptian-German Private Sector Development Program.

“We thought this would really make a difference to greening the Egyptian economy,” she said.

In effect, hotels can become a guinea pig for the broader industry. If green technologies are shown to be practical, and to save money by reducing energy costs, other industries can be convinced to adopt them.

Case studies conducted in Latin America by environment NGO Rainforest Alliance found that businesses that invested in energy saving technologies saved thousands of dollars in annual energy costs, seeing a return on investment in around 2.3 years. If hotels in Egypt were to see similar results, it could help prompt other kinds of businesses, from office parks to shopping centers, to consider investing in the same technologies.

Hotels can also help spark green industries by creating a market for products ranging from solar water heaters or organic hand soap.

“Tourism is a huge market in Egypt where you can sell this environmentally friendly technology, which in a sense then translates into the local supply chain,” says Sahra Gemeinder, an advisor at the Egyptian-German Private Sector Development Program.

With guaranteed demand for local, environmentally friendly products, companies have a secure base from which to grow and develop, eventually expanding into the retail market as well.

Genuine improvements in the environmental standards of the tourism industry can also help preserve Egypt’s fragile natural treasures, as well as reduce the country’s carbon footprint.

According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, tourism is responsible for about five percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, as well as contributing to excessive water consumption and waste generation, water pollution and damage to local wildlife. Greener practices can allow tourism-based economies like Egypt to continue to grow without accelerating damage to their environments.

The key to translating these plans into practical changes on the ground would be enforcement, continuity and follow up — otherwise, this may all end up being one of the many short-term trends in the industry.

In the mid-2000s, for example, Egypt suddenly became keen on positioning itself as a destination for the sport of golf, in a bid to capture the growing sports tourism trend. This was translated into designing world-class golf courses at touristic resorts as well as exclusive upscale residential compounds, and in turn, property developers were criticized for not giving much thought to the country’s scarce water resources. The fact that Egyptians don’t care much for the sport themselves also didn’t seem to be an issue, and these golf courses now consume more water than they generate revenue for the economy.

On the downside, even sincere efforts to reduce the environmental impact of tourism can simply serve as a salve for vacationers’ consciences, convincing them that hopping on an airplane and flying halfway around the world for a holiday, or playing golf in the desert, can be environmentally friendly provided they stay at the right hotel.

Worse, an emphasis on green tourism can lead to “greenwashing,” superficial gestures that allow tourism operators to reap the marketing benefits of a “green” label without actually making substantial changes to reduce their effects on the environment.

Many Red Sea hotels are built right on top of coral reefs, discharge waste into the sea and have a hugely negative impact on local communities says Amr Ali, managing director of environment watchdog HEPCA.

“Just by buying the proper soap or shampoo, or washing the linens twice, they can put a green flag on it,” says Ali.

How do Egypt’s recent initiatives stack up?

Among the recent efforts, the most serious appears to be El Gouna’s plan to go carbon neutral. The Red Sea resort, which is owned by mega-firm Orascom Hotels and Development is in the process of developing a plan to shift everything from streetlights and boiler systems to local manufacturing plants to greener sources of energy. In some cases, that may simply mean shifting from diesel to natural gas, while in other cases the company is looking into solar and wind energy, explains Orascom consultant Nabil Rashdan.

The company is still conducting feasibility studies, and anticipates having a clear timeline and action plan in place by June.

Even people like Adly, who is clearly reluctant to applaud mass tourism projects by Orascom, which is owned by Egypt’s business tycoon Sawiris family, recognize that Gouna has made a serious commitment to improving its environmental performance.

The project proposed requires massive capital investment, says Ali, “This won’t be a joke.”

At the other end of the scale is the UN Global Code of Ethics for Tourism, signed by the minister of tourism in January. Although it is a document full of nice sentiments about the role of tourism as a means of promoting cultural understanding and environmental protection, it does not set specific benchmarks and has no mechanism whatsoever for enforcement.

The Green Star Program appears to be somewhere in the middle. Certification programs have often been criticized for lacking any real substance or teeth. HEPCA’s Ali cites the Travelife certification program, used in some hotels in Egypt, as a particularly egregious example.

“Do you know who is the auditor? The GM audits the hotel. He sits down and says “Okay, today I’m going to grade myself.” He sends himself a warning and he gives himself a star,” says Ali. “You get a nice certificate and you put it in the lobby.”

The Green Star Hotel program claims to be different. Hotels are evaluated by outside auditors, explains Green Star consultant Zeinab Hussein. To get an initial certification, and to be awarded either three, four or five star rankings, hotels operators go through extensive training, and then have two to three months to make changes before undergoing an initial audit.

At that point, one local auditor and one visiting auditor from Germany, both trained and certified by the Green Star program, would make a site visit. Every two years, hotels would have to recertify, and those who have failed to maintain standards could be downgraded or dropped completely from the program.

However, the Green Star Program did not respond to repeated requests to make public the specific criteria by which participating hotels are judged. The standards are based on, and have been approved, by the Global Sustainable Tourism Council, an international initiative established to try to create more accountability and consistency in ecotourism certification schemes.

Hussein confirmed that categories include water and waste management and energy efficiency, but did not give any examples of which benchmarks and commitments participating hotels have to meet, nor what separates a three-star certification from a five-star rank.

With no public information, it is impossible for aspiring green tourists or other members of the public to independently evaluate whether the Green Star Program is a serious effort or simply a greenwash scheme.

“If you’re going to stick a sticker saying “please save water,” I don't see that it will make a difference,” notes Ali, “If you do not have a strong mechanism, it’s doomed to fail.”

Sahra Gemeinder of the Private Sector Development program emphasizes that the Green Star program is just a first step. “In order to get responsibility from the hotels, you have to start with something. And it’s a process. Regulation and everything is going to get tighter, but you have to start somehow,” she says.

The problem, says Ali, is that Egypt is running out of time.

“It’s not five minutes to twelve regarding conservation in Egypt. It’s already twelve o’clock,” he says.

“The problem is never with the initiative itself, never with the goodwill — it’s how do you implement it.”

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