Samih SawirisSamih Sawiris has often been described as a business visionary.

He is the driving force of Orascom Touristic Projects and Development and Orascom Hotel Holdings, two of the region’s most successful and biggest conglomerates. He is a busy man with big thoughts. One of his bigger thoughts was El Gouna.

The story of the founding of El Gouna ‘The man, the vision, El Gouna', has been told and retold (see accompanying feature) in tones that inspire a reverence for the man normally reserved for iron-fisted political figures. But this image doesn’t match the man often seen strolling around El Gouna in khakis and a polo shirt, a hand thrust casually into a pocket, with a relaxed, inviting expression. Red carpets are not rolled out when he’s among neighbours and friends in El Gouna, and perhaps that’s one of the reasons he spends as much time as possible in his home there when his business allows.

While he doesn’t hide from the media, he’s no publicity hound either, and now that El Gouna has an identity of its own, the Sawiris name seems to be receding into the background in the myriad of El Gouna brochures and publications. But he is still very much involved in planning the future of El Gouna, and one word from him can breathe life in or spell death to a project there. In an interview with H2O, the man behind El Gouna shares his vision and strategy for the little resort town, and reveals that contrary to popular lore, his original vision for El Gouna was on a far more humble scale.

H2O: Describe El Gouna in your own words.
Samih: To me, El Gouna is a little town in the making, a town that specifically must not become your typical tourist town, Egyptian town, or even European town. El Gouna should be a place where people from all over the world would not find it excessively strange to settle down and live. In a way it has to be open for all cultures and ways of life, and have all the services that modern, open-minded families require to settle down and call it home.

H2O: What do you think sets El Gouna apart from other "sea, sun, and sand" resorts around the world and in Egypt?

Samih: What sets it apart is mainly that we do not consider all development from the point of view of tourists, or the point of view of real estate buyers, but rather predominantly from the three groups of people that are equally, and I stress equally, important to us. These are residents who live here permanently, the tourists, and the investors who buy for leisure or investment or both. Ask the people what that does for the atmosphere here. They will all share positive and negative insights and have different requirements and experiences. Tourists might say not enough lively night places, while residents might say thank God there are limited noisy night outlets. But we have to have compromise so that all three groups can coexist happily.

H2O: Your marketing focuses a lot on the "European" elements in El Gouna. What unique Egyptian elements does El Gouna offer?
Samih: Besides the nearby Bedouin encampment, the only Egyptian aspects are the people, and of course the local architecture. I would have liked to have seen more local Egyptians living here. But there was no existing village already here with existing traditions that developed into El Gouna. We didn’t have an existing culture or historical community.

H2O: Wasn’t the original plan to house the workers near the town center in the basic apartments to give the town a kind of Egyptian base? What happened to that idea?
Sawiris: The plan to have workers integrated into the town and life was modified to avoid imposing too much of a lifestyle change for the workers, who come from traditional village-like backgrounds. It was not a comfortable idea to them to expose their families so directly to the Western norms displayed by the tourists in the streets. We set up a new village, called El Bustan, emphasizing the Egyptian way of living and cultural standards, catering exclusively to Egyptian families, the wives and children of workers.   
There is a school for the children, as well as the hotel school that provides vocational training to the entire community, including the relatives and friends of the existing workers. We are currently building a kind of social club, a church, and another prayer area since the mosque in El Gouna is not very near to El Bustan.

H2O: How much will you let El Gouna grow? What is the maximum average population you envision to make an ideal lively town?
Sawiris: This is the one million dollar question. I can only tell you I have consistently underestimated the number of people it takes to make a town alive and not too crowded. I started with two hotels and a small downtown area and thought that would be sufficient. Ten hotels later, we are still growing. But I will press the stop button as soon as I feel there is enough. I feel no pressure to continue to grow beyond that point where I feel it is big enough, because we (Orascom Touristic Development) have a lot of other areas where we have started similar projects – Taba, Emirates, Jordan, Fayoum… All these are areas where we have tons of land and we can develop and grow there. This (overdevelopment of one project) is what drives other developments into ruin: they have only that one venue to make money, so they push it and push it until it doesn’t work anymore.

H2O: Do you have plans to welcome or build other industries in El Gouna besides the tourism industry?
Sawiris: Absolutely. Any kind of environmentally suitable industry is welcome. Our farming activities are growing: we have more than 90 acres planted, and more than 5000 animals, from ducks to sheep. They make up a small industry for the purpose of taking the town out of the mono-tourism culture that is devastating to the image and quality of a town. One of the things that one learns from history is that not one of these towns that grew around a single industry or factory ever succeeded as a town that was a nice place to live. We are doing our best to stay away from that.

H2O: "Green Gouna" is on its way to promoting El Gouna as an "eco-tourism" destination. What is your definition of Eco-Tourism, and what are the benefits for El Gouna going green?
Sawiris: I have no definition of eco-tourism, but I know one thing, living with the environment in a way that you do not cause it to suffer by your being there, and promoting the compromise between using natural resources and maintaining them, is a winner. as such, I will promote anything that is a compromise between taking a shortcut by doing things the cheap way at the price of damaging the environment, and not doing anything at all, like keeping things completely untouched and undeveloped like fanatical environmentalists insist. I am of the opinion that wherever there are people, there is pressure on the environment. The duty of people that have a big piece of land, like ourselves (Orascom), is to minimize the impact of their being there. A lot of people, especially in Europe, share this opinion, and if they can find a place in Egypt that promotes this style and attitude, then El Gouna will benefit. There is a growing number of Europeans and people all over the world who identify with places where good practices underlie the way a place is developed and maintained.

H2O: At times, the town center and Marina areas can feel like ghost towns, especially during low seasons. How is management breathing life into them these days?
Sawiris: What has been breathing life into the place is the growing number of residents coupled with the higher occupancy of hotels and growing number of day visitors from Hurghada. Now that the rates in hotels have gone up, the kind of tourists we are attracting have money to spend outside of the hotels. The town is picking up because people are venturing out of their hotels, and we need to encourage this.

H2O: What, if anything, is still missing from the town to make it fit your ideal vision?
Sawiris: One thing that is definitely missing but we will make happen by the end of the year is a better playground for the children. The current playground in El Gouna is unacceptable compared to the other things. We will make that happen.

H2O: If you could start El Gouna all over again, is there anything you would have done differently?
Sawiris: The good thing about El Gouna is I never knew it was going in the direction of becoming a town.
It would have been crazy to have gone to El Gouna 10 years ago and thought about building a town. It happened step by step so I never thought about a bigger vision all at once. I doubt if I could think about changing it.

H2O: How much time do you and/or your family spend on average in El Gouna?
Sawiris: If I am in Egypt, there will not be a weekend that I will spend anywhere else but El Gouna.
I stretch my weekends to begin Thursday afternoon.


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