Cop27 breathes new life into Sharm El Sheikh after Covid-19 paralysis

Rush to complete city's refurbishment before conference starts in November

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Preparations for the United Nations climate change conference (Cop27) in November are well under way in Sharm El Sheikh, which the Egyptian government hopes to transform into a fully functional, green and smart city.

The Red Sea resort’s recently renovated roads, flanked by bustling shops, are in marked contrast to the state of disrepair the city was in last year, a result of two years of Covid-19 travel bans keeping tourists away.

During the pandemic, most of its shops and hotels were closed and the vast majority of workers in the tourism sector were forced to leave and find jobs elsewhere. But this year, the city’s beaches have filled up with tourists and its streets with construction workers, rushing to complete the makeover before the conference.

“It’s amazing how much things can change in one year,” Hassan Ahmed, 53, a taxi driver and long-time Sharm El Sheikh time resident, tells The National.

“During Covid-19, municipal authorities did not even bother to turn on the streetlamps in many of the city’s districts because they were deserted. And now, you can’t look anywhere without seeing a new building being constructed or another being repainted.

"I, for one, am ecstatic that things are picking up again and I hope that this conference will result in more tourists arriving.”

The sheer scale of the development has caught the attention of many locals, most of whom are familiar with the international conferences that regularly take place in Sharm El Sheikh, earning it the title of City of Peace because of the numerous diplomatic talks it has hosted over the years.

In 2005, the city hosted a summit attended by Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, then prime minister of Israel Ariel Sharon, Egypt's former president Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah II of Jordan. The meeting effectively ended the second Palestinian intifada that had been going on for five years at the time.

“People living here are used to conferences," says Ahmed Hassanein, 36, a shop owner in Sharm El Sheikh. "They happen here quite often and they’re always the same.

"On one day, the airport will be very busy when a bunch of men in suits arrive and then there is higher security than usual for a few days and then they leave.

"We have learnt not to pay attention to them. But this climate change one is difficult to ignore. The amount of work that has been done in the past few months is astounding.”

Changing face of Sharm El Sheikh

Several residents also told The National they have noticed a sharp rise in the number of security personnel over the past few weeks.

Last month, the country’s Environment Minister Yasmine Fouad, who is also serving as Cop27’s ministerial co-ordinator and envoy, said the government’s plan comprises 27 national projects, including the establishment of two solar power plants (bringing the total to four stations that can produce up to 20 megawatts of power), a widening of its main roads and the construction and inauguration of a city council headquarters within a 126,000 metre-squared central park.

The plan includes the construction of two fuelling stations for a new fleet of public buses set to be delivered by September 30, a statement last week by Egypt’s Transport Minister Kamel El Wazir, who was in Sharm El Sheikh at the weekend with Prime Minister Moustafa Madbouly to inspect the preparations.

One of the stations will be used to recharge up to 140 electric buses at a time, while the other will be dedicated to refuelling those that operate on natural gas, with a capacity of 120.

Fifty charging stations for private use will also be completed by November at various places throughout the city, Mr El Wazir said.

The ministers visited the city’s relatively small airport to inspect a continuing project to expand it in time for the arrival of Cop27 attendees.

Although a fair amount of progress has been made, the majority of construction remains unfinished. The allocated space for the much-anticipated central park remains unplanted and yellow with sand, despite an initial projected completion date of March 2022.

Aside from building projects, the city’s authorities are launching a number of new campaigns to make it more sustainable, including reinstating a citywide ban on single-use plastics. The initiative, which was first undertaken in 2019, fell short of its goals due to the onset of the pandemic, which effectively halted most activity in Sharm El Sheikh.

"What was great about the plastic ban in 2019 was that it worked so well," Bahaa, 31, a local diving instructor tells The National, "The city is small so enforcing these rules is easy and I remember at the time, all the shops made away with plastic bags and we were using these recycled bags instead. But then Covid-19 happened and the rest is history."

Ms Fouad promised in March that the beach town would again be entirely free of single-use plastic by the end of June with the relaunch of the campaign.

In a bid to make the city’s vital tourism sector more sustainable, green certificates are being given to hotels and recreational centres that adjust operations to make them more environmentally friendly.

Updated: June 10, 2022, 2:40 AM