Home Spot Light THE BATTLE FOR GIFTUN

THE BATTLE FOR GIFTUN

The Drums of Battle:

It all started with a news item appearing on Egyptian TV in the first week of April. A major investment was being proposed to the government by some Italian companies for a US$ 2 billion development in one of the islands of the Red Sea in the Hurghada area, no other details were given.

A day or two later shock waves rippled through Hurghada and the Red Sea when it emerged that the island in question was none other than the world famous Giftun Island, the national marine park a few miles from the center of Hurghada.

This is our major attraction for the thousands of divers, snorkellers, and beach lovers who flock to its’ shores and the surrounding reefs every day of the year. What followed was an unprecedented unified cry of outrage and opposition to such an audacious scheme, which quickly spread to Cairo as well. This island is supposedly protected by a law which protects Egypt’s god given natural heritage.

In a historic show of unity of purpose and action, The Red Sea Association for Diving and Watersports, together with HEPCA (Hurghada Environment Protection and Conservation Association), quickly started to organize and mobilize a large scale domestic and international “SAVE OUR GIFTUN” campaign. Once the news broke about this proposed development on Giftun, the alarm bells quickly sounded and both the Red Sea Association and HEPCA set up a joint crisis management team from both boards to evaluate the implications and to set in motion a series of immediate counter - measures.

It was quite clear from the outset that this was a matter of survival for all Red Sea stakeholders, well before details of the project were discreetly obtained by the Association. (It is interesting to note that even up until now, no official outline of the project has ever been made public).

The first priority was to think through what the implications of such a massive development would have not only on Giftun but on the whole of the Hurghada touristic profile, and then to clearly define our collective position with respect thereto. This was expressed in the initial petition that went online a few days after the initial announcement. Basically our opposition to this project was based on three key issues as follows:

National Identity:

The most important issue that we felt needed to be highlighted was our national identity and credibility. Giftun is to Hurghada what Ras Mohamed is to Sharm El Sheikh, the pyramids are to Cairo, or what Karnak is to Luxor. It is utterly inconceivable that such a national and in this case GOD GIVEN heritage may even be considered as an object to sell or lease.

Our national heritage does not belong to us and no one has the right to dispose of it. We are nothing more than transitory custodians whose responsibility is to protect and preserve it before handing over to the next generation.

What kind of precedent would this set should such a project be allowed to proceed, what would then stop even more ludicrous schemes from being implemented under the false pretence of development? What about our credibility as a nation which has so far fully adopted all kinds of environmental laws declaring many regions and land marks as protected areas. How can we justify having collected and continue to collect every day of the year national park fees from every single visitor to Giftun Island while at the same time turning it into one giant concrete jungle?

Environmental aspect:

One does not need to see any environmental impact study to realize that a project of such magnitude (US$ 2 billion) would have disastrous effects on the environment not only on Giftun itself, its landscape, animal, bird and plant life, its beaches and incredible coral reefs and their inhabitants but also on the surrounding areas.

To put this into perspective, just read through the Giftun fact sheet then let your imagination loose as you picture all that is Giftun against the massive scale of construction, equipment, workers and their daily natural needs and wastes, the tens of thousands of tons of cement, steel, wood and other material.

Economic Aspect:

The developers were promising the world a “new Sardinia”, as they put it, with thousands of job opportunities to operate the thousands of hotel rooms they planned to build (makes one shiver just thinking about that on Giftun).

These rooms would house thousands of rich tourists spending zillions of euros etc, making Hurghada a better place for all. Well, enough day dreaming and lets look at the reality:
Last time we looked, the chronic problem of Red Sea tourism was the embarrassingly cheap prices we are selling ourselves at compared to other destinations.

We fail to see the economic logic of introducing thousands of hotel rooms in a region that suffers from extremely low prices and low occupancy rates a good part of the year. Last year, The Governor of the Red Sea actually took the courageous step of decreeing a freeze on any new hotel permits in the Red Sea. Have we lost sight to this extent? Why do people come from all over the world to the Red Sea, (and I do not mean only the divers)?

The answer is simple, they come to enjoy the peace and natural beauty of the Red Sea. They are definately not coming because of the exclusive hotels, tacky discos and below average restaurants, so do we really want to destroy the very thing that brings them here in the first place?


Last but not least, what about the billions of pounds invested and borrowed to build and operate the tens of thousands of hotel rooms that are already in Hurghada whose main attraction and principal gateway is the outings to the Giftun Island? (Check the excursions program of every single tour operator in Hurghada to get the picture).

What would have become of them and their guests, were we going to offer guided tours of construction sites on the island?

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Media Blitz:

Where is the Transparency?
Translated Quotes from an article that was published in Al Ahram Newspaper written by Eng. Samih Sawiris - Red Sea Investor.
It was not so long ago that we, as Egyptians were not allowed to step on the Red Sea Islands.

Any ideas of developing the islands were rebuffed and to further discuss the issue was not acceptable by any means. The placing of wooden umbrellas and tents were strictly monitored and activities such as building, staying after sunset or sewage treatment were banned completely.
It was astonishing to wake up one day and see on the news that after a meeting between an investor and our Prime Minister, it had been decided that Giftun could be developed as the investor envisaged spending US$2000 million on the scheme!

When were the EEAA persuaded that the ‘protected’,Giftun Island was nonsense and that it was acceptable to be developed?
If this project had been executed not a single investor would have considered coming to Egypt. The message delivered to all investors in the official newspapers simply stated that this investor was granted this very strange opportunity because he had carried out direct negotiations with the PM and did not waste his time taking the matter to the relevant department or authority. Is this acceptable”?
Is it so easy to sell the Islands?
Translated Quotes from an article that was published in Al Ahram Newspaper written by Mr. Ahmed El Shaer - Red Sea Investor.
“I am one of the main supporters of attracting foreign investment, especially in tourism because I believe that foreign investment in this field could protect the Egyptian investments as we will, together, develop the means to promote this commodity.

I mean by my previous introduction to point out my sincere support of any effort that aims to bring into Egypt foreign investment. Yet I am totally against any project that is promised to any foreign Government by our own Government.

I am not speaking from an environmental point of view as there are many qualified entities that could speak about the subject from that aspect better than me. I am speaking about protecting the investors in Hurghada who have multi-billion pound projects - 40 thousand rooms, that have no marine asylum other than Giftun Island.

The income that is generated in these projects will settle the bank debts of these same projects. This project could be considered as a bullet which is directed towards these investments and any attempt to settle the bank debts. All Egyptians should object to this scheme”.

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What is GIFTUN?
To many, Giftun is an outstanding dive site, or rather dive sites as it has a number of the most beautiful dives in the Hurghada area. It is also a favourite spot for snorkellers and beachlovers, but there is a lot more to Giftun than meets the eye, here’s why it was decreed a national park: The coral reefs that surround the Red Sea Islands are among the most attractive and most studied reefs around the globe.

Many people enjoy the beautiful snap shots that are captured of the most glamorous and colourful species of the Red Sea. Coral reefs and the communities they support represent an immense economic resource to Egypt as long as they are regarded as unspoilt by man.
For thousands and thousands of years the coral reefs that surround Giftun Island have been a shelter and a habitat for hundreds of marine creatures. The natural balance has been maintained due to the harmony that has been established by the habitants of the area surrounding Giftun. This is supported by the moderately controlled human activities limited to yachting, diving and snorkelling.

It is possible that some sophisticated impact studies could be carried out by specialised environmentalists that might claim the Giftun development could have a positive affect on the environment and even lead to the prosperity of the fish and corals. But those of us who visit and enjoy the serenity of the island on regular basis, would reach the simple and direct conclusion that any development which entailed concrete buildings, marinas, airports, etc.. could only lead to catastrophic results.

Let us look together at the most important marine life that will consider moving out of their habitat if such an idea was to become reality

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What Are They Saying:
The proposed project was of such a controversial nature that it ignited strong reactions from all different sectors and levels of people, not just limited to those who are active in environmental issues. From the average man in the street, to teenagers, business leaders, high profile politicians and members of parliament, they all basically had the same message: STAY AWAY FROM GIFTUN.”

H2O took the opportunity to speak to a number of people and here are the highlights of what they had to say:

Dr Mohamed Saleh
(MP and Head of Tourism Advisory Committee)
“Giftun is a national park as per presidential decree and is the third largest island in the Red Sea. There is no amount of money that can justify destroying this national treasure”. 

 
Mohamed Awad
(Head of Hurghada City Council)
“Developing the island in such a manner will destroy tourism in the Red Sea. It will have a very negative impact on the 40,000 hotel rooms that are already established.
We all know that Giftun, Magawish and Abu-Monkar islands are protected islands and should not be subject to development that will affect the flora and fauna”.  

 
Dr. Samir El-Sonbaty (Chairman of HEPCA)
“There are 40,000 hotel rooms that are built in the Red Sea through bank finance. The owners are still in the process of settling their debts.
Would the banks see this money bearing in mind the overcapacity problem we already have here? Giftun Island also is like a set of healthy lungs to all hotels that do not have a sea frontage. Also, bare in mind that Hurghada doesn't offer many other spectacular reasons that might attract tourists and for this reason we should preserve the island”.   

 
Mohamed El-Kaissouny (Egyptian Chamber of Tourism Industry)

“If the government sets up schemes to site areas that have specific environmental importance as sensitive and therefore in need of protection then all people should follow the ensuing environmental laws and regulations. In addition, funding agencies spend millions of pounds on the preservation of the area. The shocking news that this area might have been sold or will be subject to development represents a severe violation to the law. Something equally sinister happened in Saint Catherine’s Monastery. I will not sit back and rest, and will keep on sending messages to concerned people and government officials”.  

Peace Time Hero Gen. Saad Abu Rida:

Since he came to office as Governor of the Red Sea, (Egypt’s second largest Governorate), almost six years ago, H.E Saad Abu Rida has brought with him lifelong experience from a highly distinguished military career where he held the highest and most sensitive positions. Courage, conviction, clarity of vision and decisiveness are traits that he brought with him to office.

From the start, it was clear that General Abu Rida was a man who took his time to study any situation, gather all relevant and objective information and once the informed decision was made there was no turning back in implementing it.

One of the first things he did as Governor of the Red Sea was to go scuba diving, quite unusual for a politician, but when you think about it, a very natural thing to do if one were to be in charge of the Red Sea region. He wanted to see for himself what it was all about, the underwater world, the environment, and the state of affairs in the diving and watersports industry, which is the mainstay of Red Sea tourism.

Throughout the years that followed, General Abu Rida the war hero came to be an equally distinguished peace time hero, a true champion of the environment, with conviction and more importantly, with deeds. He took a firm position when Hurghada was threatened about two years ago with the prospect of offshore oil drilling off Umm Gamar Island, the first major battle won by the environment and in which the Red Sea Association was also actively involved.

Now and true to form, his staunch and unwavering stand in opposition to the Giftun development was even more remarkable and outspoken.
He made his position very clear from the outset and went on record explaining all the reasons why such a scheme should not be allowed to materialize.

Our industry and our environment are in good hands in the Red Sea.

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THANK YOU Mr. President


After several weeks of frantic activity by the Association, HEPCA and many other supporters, the campaign to stop the proposed development was aided by both the media throwing its considerable weight behind it and the heated parliamentary hearings that were brought to the Egyptian Parliament.
Led by MP’s Dr Mohamed Saleh and the Red Sea’s Mohamed Abdel Maksoud, the happy climax was finally to hand.

H. E. President Hosni Mubarak, always mindful of the bigger picture and the best interests of the country and its people, personally intervened to settle the issue and gave his instruction to put a stop to this project and preserve the protected status of Giftun Island.

On behalf of all Red Sea stakeholders and all those who enjoy the natural magic of Giftun and the Red Sea from all over the world, we extend a very big “THANK YOU” Mr President.

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