Egypt Pulse

Ecotourism coming to Egypt's Western Desert

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Article Summary
The Egyptian government has launched an initiative to restore the ancient village of Shali, in the middle of the Sawi oasis, and promote it through ecotourism.

CAIRO — The ancient village of Shali stands as a formidable fortress in the middle of the Siwa oasis in Egypt's Western Desert. Built in the 13th century to protect the inhabitants of this remote strategic location 340 miles west of Cairo, Shali today is on the verge of rebirth as a destination for ecological tourism.

After seven centuries of habitation, a three-day wave of heavy rain in 1926 severely damaged the buildings of the village, which had been constructed from a mix of salt, rock and clay called “kershef.” As a result, most residents were forced to relocate outside the village. Over the decades, the village began to be referred to as the “City of Ghosts,” due to only a few of its buildings being used, as remains the case today.

Shali's ruins are one of the main draws in Siwa, attracting tourists as well as archaeologists. In mid-October, the Egyptian government announced a plan to preserve what remains of Shali and to restore some of its buildings.

Emad Farid, an architect at Environment Quality International (EQI), the company overseeing implementation of the plan, explained to Al-Monitor that the project consists of rehabilitating the streets and the main wall around the village and restoring three houses to showcase different types of buildings. A study of Shali’s remnants involving input from residents will also be conducted.

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Farid said, explained, “We discuss a lot of things with Siwa’s elders and leaders, who have a lot of knowledge about the buildings and can help us identify all the details.” The Ministry of Antiquities is supervising the project, which is being funded by the European Union (EU) and is scheduled for completion by 2020.

“Shali is a very important part of Egyptian heritage and culture,” Gamal Mostafa, head of the Islamic, Coptic and Jewish Department at the Ministry of Antiquities, told Al-Monitor. “It is part of our history. You can imagine how life was like for the Egyptians in that area and the problems they faced before the government could arrive there during the era of Mohammed Ali [in the early 19th century].”

Beyond the objective of preserving a valuable part of Egyptian heritage, the restoration project has the broader goal of boosting tourism outside Cairo. In the particular case of Siwa, the plan is to develop and promote the area as an ecotourism destination, an effort made public in March 2017 by Alaa Abu-Zaid, former governor of Matruh, during a tourism conference in Siwa.

Mahmoud al-Qassiouni, an ecotourism adviser to the ministers of tourism and environment from 2009 until 2014, told Al-Monitor, “The natural heritage of Egypt is incredible, [and] Siwa's potential is enormous, but we have to deal with it from the perspective of environmental awareness, because it is an extremely fragile environment, and we should protect it.” 

In this regard, he praised EQI's involvement in Shali’s restoration as a step in the right direction. “Siwa is an oasis [located] in a depression right in the middle of the Western Desert, and it really needs very highly educated personnel and professionals to manage its environment,” Qassiouni said

Because of the area's fragility, the Ministry of the Environment is working hand in hand with the Ministries of Tourism and Antiquities. Environment Ministry spokesperson Abdel Gawad Abu Kab explained to Al-Monitor that the major challenge at the moment is preserving the traditional way of building. Modern structures have been proliferating, threatening the landscape of the oasis as well as the potential of ecotourism.

“We are spreading environmental awareness so we can convince the community that a unified environment of houses in Siwa is the most suitable for the oasis,” said Abu Kab.

Despite Siwa’s tourism potential, the number of visitors has been substantially reduced as a result of the instability triggered across Egypt following the January 25 Revolution in 2011 as well as Siwa lying only 31 miles east of Libya and the ongoing unrest in that country.

Ahmad Hassan, vice president of the Siwa Shali Group, which owns a travel agency specializing in the Western Desert and the Siwa Shali Resort, told Al-Monitor that today around 70% of visitors at the resort are from Egypt and the rest are foreign tourists. Before the revolution, those numbers were reversed.

Asserting that there is no reason for this shift, Hassan said, “Despite the security warnings from certain embassies not to go to Siwa because it is near to Libya, Egyptian borders are safe and there has not been any incident in recent years, so we need to re-establish the 2010 levels [of tourist arrivals].”

Siwis working in the tourism industry have praised the plan to restore Shali as a way to promote their sector, which is only now beginning to recover from the severely negative effects of the 2011 upheaval.

“Now ecotourism is a trend all over the world, because new generations are looking for it, and we have great possibilities in Siwa to develop such tourism, because [the place] is very well suited,” said Hassan, whose Siwa Shali Group is a member of the Chamber of Tourism. “[That is why] the initiative to restore Shali is good, because it helps us to develop the flow of tourists in the area.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Abdallah, who owns a shop selling handmade Siwan products in a bazaar next to Shali, said, “If old Shali and its surroundings are repaired, that will provide all the people in the area with new opportunities to open businesses for tourists.” 

Khaled, the owner of a hotel next to old Shali, agreed with Abdallah while also asserting that new touristic initiatives must preserve and respect the value already extant in Siwa. Khaled told Al-Monitor, “Sustainable tourism is most suitable to Siwa [because] this is all part of our heritage and our culture, and also because we don’t want to miss in the future what we had in the past. We need to preserve it for the generations coming after us.”

In the eyes of Samantha Fathalbab, an Egyptian who has visited Siwa several times and owns a shop in Alexandria promoting products from the oasis, ecotourism is indeed the best way to approach the area. “Being environmentally friendly and having a sort of natural and organic experience is close to Siwis’ way of life,” she told Al-Monitor. “Siwa is still a very pure place. It is not consumed by commercialism, so it is important to continue to respect [that].”

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Marc Espanol is a Catalan journalist based in Cairo. He is interested in minority rights, politics and religion.

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