Decades of mass tourism have taken a toll on the waters, coral reefs and natural spaces of Egypt’s most popular resort city.
Now, as Sharm El Sheikh gears up to host the Cop27 climate change conference in November, preparations have brought much-needed development for the beach town, which suffered a slump in tourism when the Covid-19 pandemic struck.
But locals are apprehensive about an anticipated increase in global interest in the tourist destination after Cop27.
Some worry the crowd will further damage the fragile ecosystem surrounding the Red Sea.
The National spoke to some of the city’s local diving instructors, who see first hand the state of the Red Sea’s ecosystem and the damage it has sustained over the years because of tourism.
“Sharm has some of the most beautiful diving spots in the world, no question. But what you have to keep in mind is that the majority of its tourists don’t come here for the diving,” said Sherif Khairat, head of technical diving at Circle Divers, a prolific centre in the area which organises regular clean-up initiatives in the Red Sea.
“Most people come for the nightlife or the beach, and they’re on vacation, they treat the city like any other beach resort they have been to, which is not right because it is truly unique.”
Mr Khairat said before president Hosni Mubarak was ousted in 2011, the city was not accessible to a large portion of Egyptians, mainly lower-paid citizens who were kept away by high pricing schemes.
However, in the politically unstable years between Mubarak’s removal and the election of President Abdel Fattah El Sisi in 2014, the city began to open to a larger segment of the populace, making it much more crowded than it once was, which Mr Khairat said had a direct effect on the deterioration of the city’s environment.
“The trick is that we as Egyptians are not raised with an awareness of the environment and how to preserve it,” he said.
“This is why I think that the top priority for the government with Cop27 is to set a good example for the citizens and educate them that their actions have consequences for the world around them.”
In response to increasing amounts of plastic waste thrown into the Red Sea by tourists, in 2019 the city’s municipal authorities banned the use of single-use plastics.
Circle Divers is one of several diving centres in the city that organises regular clean-up efforts in the sea. However, it is not enough to resolve the problem.
Like Mr Khairat, the city’s more environmentally minded residents are hoping that sustainability mandates announced by the government ahead of the conference will bear fruit. But many of them are unsure whether the strategies will be enforced after the conference closes.
“Rules are nothing without enforcement,” Mr Khairat said. “We already have signs everywhere asking people politely to not throw their garbage in the sea or feed the fish. They don’t listen a lot of the time and they are not reprimanded, because tourists are valuable in Sharm, which creates a little bit of a conflict of interest.”
On the other hand, many of the city’s residents admit to being more excited by a potential boost in tourism after Cop27 than they are about a greener future for the city.
“Sharm El Sheikh is nothing without tourists in it,” said Mohamed Hashem, 34, a coffee shop attendant in the city.
“The city has had quite a dramatic history compared with other tourist destinations in Egypt. Whether it’s terror attacks like the downing of the Russian plane in 2015 or the regular droughts in the tourism markets because of international crises, there is always something that sets us back here.
"The hope is that this conference will establish a blank slate for Sharm and maybe lead to more steady business.”
Meanwhile, others among the city’s workers are happy that their financial interests are aligned with a more sustainable future for the city.
“I think it was very intelligent of President El Sisi to combine all of the nation’s interests into one event,” said Ali Ibrahim, 58, a resident of the coastal city.
“On the one hand you’ve got the environmentalism stuff that is the talk of the whole world right now. On the other hand, it is a perfect opportunity to put Egypt and Sharm El Sheikh in the international spotlight, which will inevitably result in a boost in tourism.”
Sharm El Sheikh is undergoing one of its most extensive makeovers in preparation for the conference, with several projects under way, including two additional solar power plants, a number of charging stations for electric vehicles, a large-scale road-widening project and the establishment of a 12.5-hectare central park.
Cop27 takes place from November 7-18.