Hurghada, El Gouna and Soma Bay, Three Faces of Egypt’s Red Sea
Novinite is publishing brief sketches on Hurghada, Soma Bay and El Gouna - three places a group of journalists, including two members of Novinite team, visited at the invitation of Egypt's Ministry of Tourism in mid-June.
Far from being travel accounts or full descriptions of places, these reflect mostly scattered impressions which are somewhere complemented with photos (but even where the photos don't fit in, they look just fine).
Hurghada, an Egyptian city that is nowadays the hearth of Red Sea tourist life and administration, bubbled over the course of two decades from a tiny fishing village into a major tourist center receiving hundreds of thousands of guests every year - and for the adjacent areas the number is about 4 million. Multi-language shop signs and vendors greet all the guests and passers-by (we are rather Type 2). International visitors mingle with locals as we enter the Coptic Orthodox Church on our way to the downtown. Some of us join the last row of faithful at the late-night service – everybody can do this – and all of a sudden notice that we, all men, are standing on the women’s side, right of the aisle; the men are on the left.
Later on while we are traveling in our bus, a Red Sea almanach shows some of the articles and advertorials are translated into German along with the English version, others are only in German; and a vast number come in Russian. The influx of tens of thousands of residents who have so far come from that country prompts a local to say that “Russians are like Egyptians here” – and also that their language has turned out quite easy to learn for the local population. An incredible colony of Russians who have shops, hotels and restaurants, but also dance schools, has been (and is still being) set up here, and their names have the strongest presence in ads. A Russian wave (Большая русская волна) festival in Hurghada which marked this year its 15th anniversary - windsurfing, kite training, amateur kite tournament, windsurf fan rally, paddleboard, body art championship, beach volleyball tournament and a host of other activities seems to be a landmark event for the local expat community in which, however, guests are also taking part.
It doesn’t all amount to “Russian domination”, though. A marina overlooking the Red Sea gives just a tiny example of how international the place is. Small, two-story houses, painted in different colors each, give into the water and into a yacht park from the second floor, while the first one offers German, Indian or Thai cuisine; and this – just meters from where you could have a Russian Solyanka, a Japanese sushi or Spanish Gazpacho. Bars and clubs have their tables set next to those of the restaurants. This is where nightlife seems to be concentrated, and this paves the way for a huge business of entertainment agencies looking for places along the Red Sea coastline.
And let's not forget that, like other venues at the Red Sea, this one is too something of a “diving hub”.
„I was there last Thursday and Friday,” Khaled Ramy, Tourism Minister, had earlier told our group of journalists while meeting us in Cairo. “We had a competition. It was the Guinness book of records. They came to Hurghada and they challenged us not to be able to have more than 300 divers cleaning up the floor of the Red Sea in a confined area. We beat the record by more than 300 divers. We were actually able to bring 614 to break the record, and it will be in the Guinness Book of records this year.“ Saying “we”, the minister includes himself, and has good reasons to do so: he went down with the divers because, as he explained, he wanted to prove that the environment and especially coral reefs are something Egyptian authorities care a lot to preserve.
We stay in Hurghada just a few hours – but this is long enough to see it’s one of the places tourists with more traditional demands will enjoy. The rest are not short of options, though. With the nearest coral reef to Europe, 365 days of sun, and quite a short distance between hotels and beaches, Egypt’s Red Sea has something to offer to anyone, from those willing to escape the civilization (Nuweiba, a town in the Eastern part of Sinai) or people who wish to go diving or snorkeling every day (Wadi Lahami on the southeastern coast) to those who would like the more relaxed style of Hurghada or Sharm El Sheikh.
Others might opt for Soma Bay – a resort just 45 km south of Hurghada where water sports activities can be swiftly combined with golf, spa, and a feeling of being marooned; though not on an island, but on a 10 square km peninsula where an ocean of sand is being turned into a field of green.
Soma Bay houses 5 hotels at the time of our visit (more are being built at the moment), and the only way to reach it by land is a private road leading into the resort with entry gates to keep tourists safe. Calm dominates the landscape a few hundred meters from the coastline as many guests are busy kite-surfing or diving most of the day. Narrow roads winding in between golf courses are mostly fit for golf carts and shuttles which take guests to beaches or to the other respective hotels if they need to go there. Visitors can feel encouraged to do so: Soma Bay hotels have embarked on a special partnership that is rarely seen among smaller accommodation sites, let alone grand hotel chains.
“When someone asks about sports activities, we say we don’t offer, but our neighbors do,” Ms Nathalie Monique Hoare, Guest Relations Manager at one of the hotels, is quoted as saying. Later the same day, when I spoke to Mr Wassim Wasfy, Front Office Manager at another, he said nearly the same, pointing to his hotel’s advantages but recommending those of competitors.
The devil is always in the details: apart from its specific tourist profile, for instance, Kempinski offers Oriental nights and a minibar included in the price of the room. Sheraton has a swimming pool bar and a combination of desert and seaside views of rooms, and La R?sidence des Cascades (now converting to Westin after a deal with US-based Starwood), though not that lavish-looking at first sight, has a golf course and Spa and Thalassotherapy facilities. Going further, the Thalasso pool picture posted on Kempinski’s website is actually from La R?sidence (and by the way, after two hours spent in the pool one feels stunningly fit). Then come the Robinson Club and The Breakers, both focusing on sports activities and sports lifestyle – though the first is more family-friendly. Any official working for any of the five hotels that you ask will promote “neighbors” if their place does not include a certain service.
"Soma Bay is a whole family, we are cooperating with each other," Nathalie adds – even if she is quick to note that there is competition between hotels. Certainly; it’s just that here the word “competition” doesn’t tell the whole story. Nor do the high-quality service or the delicious meals, a wonderful view of the sea and the coastline from the hotel-room balcony, or the better part of a night spent on the beach, under the stars. This is a big project where small things make much sense, instead of looking like clich?s. For anybody who is into snorkelling or diving, treasures are hidden beneath the surface of the shallow waters - and if we come another time we'll certainly have to bring in some underwater equipment to take pictures.
Come out of the water and you'll see the silhouette of the Red Sea mountains, which seen from a distance sometimes look like when the sky is clear enough.
Go north of Soma Bay, travel 20 km after leaving Hurghada on the right – and what you’ll find is neither a resort nor a town growing into a resort; it’s rather a resort evolving into a town.
With the first sod turned in 1991 and the first hotel opened two years later, El Gouna is nearly as big now as London’s downtown area. While just 25 years ago all was desert here, the kilometers-long canals through which we are sailing and which have direct access to the sea create a taste of Egyptian-style Venice here. Employing some 3000 people directly and 6000 indirectly, the place is constantly expanding to become a real town as the staff are already bringing their families here.
Water colors are like on a postcard, and some people lie in the sun just next to the canals – though the open-sea beach meters away is notably preferred. Activities here are virtually unlimited, and whereas El Gouna is disputing the title of “best place for kite-surfing” with all other Red Sea resorts in Egypt, snorkeling and diving (three days a week) here also go hand in hand with a culture hub, a public library affiliated to Bibliotheca Alexandrica (the de-facto heir of the irretrievably lost Library of Alexandria, now based in the Northern Egyptian port city) and - to leave pure leisure aside - crucial facilities such as 24-hour emergency care in a hospital which even runs a dialysis service. A German school attracts locals who would like to develop their skills and graduate in tourism and hotel services.
“We also have a private football team. And it's playing for the Egyptian cup in First league,” our guide, who works for Orascom Development, the company which created El Gouna, tells us. Starting from the fourth division in 2003-2004, El Gouna FC was ranked 5th (out of 11 teams) in its group during the 2013-2014 Premier League.
“From May to July it’s almost a quiet season,” – the guide says, citing the sizzling heat as other people working for Egypt's tourism industry normally do; and yet the enormous manmade complex looks staggeringly empty as only a handful of people could be seen scattered along the banks of the canal and the paths crossing the green fields and golf terrains we are passing by on both sides. Desertedness is one of the effects of the past few years’ tumultuous situation: elsewhere tourists aren’t impeded by the sweltering heat when temperatures reach the year’s high.
Our guide admits this year is “better but not much better.” Last year El Gouna received a nearly historic low of tourists, numbering just 5000; the management says most Europeans feared coming. Evidently much of the accommodation lies empty. It ranges from 3 to 6 stars, the latter category including as many as 10 hotels. Dwellings can also be purchased, and they are fully constructed when put for sale. Some are Nubian style; others resemble Greek villas. “We have different architects, but you don't feel different styles,” he says, pointing to the houses.
Apart from architectural harmony, much effort is put here into sustainability. El Gouna uses three systems to get sweet water: the bulk, around 70%, is underground water, 20% is produced through the local desalination system, and 10% water from the river Nile carried by a pipeline that we saw as we were traveling to El Gouna, winding parallel to the road.
We pass under a bridge and leave the canals for a few minutes, sailing to the “open sea”. Just off the coast we spot a small island connected to “mainland” El Gouna – and this belongs to Samih Sawiris, the head of Orascom Development who founded the resort and to whom a particular step toward green energy here should be much credited. Truly, El Gouna still has got room for improvements in electricity, since generators need gasoline to work; but changes are underway as the resort is starting to prepare for the use of solar energy in the next five years and the introduction of wind turbines later on. A branch of Technische Universit?t Berlin was opened in October 2012 to help raise home-grown specialists in Energy Engineering, Water Engineering, and Urban Development. In the year ending mid-2015, there were just 19 students; but these will later help boost research & development activity. A trained engineer himself, Mr Sawiris got his diploma from the Technical University of Berlin in 1980, and years later decided to bring a campus here, with German professors coming for lectures. There is now also a department of the American University in Cairo where students come for biology and sea animals.
In other aspects, such as the production of certain goods, self-sufficiency is now achieved: El Gouna has a recycling factory which provides some raw materials, a chicken farm for the hotels, and an original brewery.
As we get out of the boat, a curious aesthetic solution pops up in front of our eyes as gusts of wind tilt the crowns of the palm trees and deciduous trees we see around – except for a solitary palm which stands higher than others and never moves.
Many of these could be seen around El Gouna; and they are all smartly covered antennas.
There is no room for a conclusion after all that has been said. Tourist industry employees always tend to say their guests come back in one or two seasons' time, and Egyptian hoteliers made no exception. One can't help the feeling they are largely telling the truth.
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