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Bedouin Managed Ecotourism in Sinai
By
Elisa Pierandrei
Elisa Pierandrei - Click to Enlarge

Imagine a land where rocks took over the sea to form an ocean where peaks are edges of immobile waves. Imagine the sky during sunset. Of an intense blue, it is a canvas colored by immobile pinnacles with red and okra painting. All the rest is pure silence, but for the crystalline air that breaks on one's skin.

This is the lofty peak of Mount Sinai, lying within the St. Katherine Protectorate, a 4300-squared kilometer area covering the Sinai mountain range in the South of Egypt. This region, that recently became a natural park, is an archeological, religious, and cultural site that contains, among other natural beauties, the Monastery of Saint Katherine and Gabal Musa (Moses's Mountain).

Today, the St. Katherine Protectorate employs 66 people, 70% of them being Bedouins, to conserve the natural and cultural environment of the South Sinai area. By hiring locals, the Protectorate has made a conscious decision to help preserve the Bedouin lifestyle and enable visitors to have a unique experience immersed in the holy spirit of these premium wilderness areas.
In 1996, the St. Katherine Protectorate was founded with a Prime Ministerial Decree and after the European Union had been assisting the Egyptian government with the development of the South Sinai national park since 1988. Since then, the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) has set in to help the protectorate to conserve and administrate the natural and cultural environment of this unique mountain area. 

At the same time, in 1996, the Protected Area Management Unit (PAMU) conducted a 12-month survey of the area in order to collect data on visitors' nationalities, their activities and attitudes, and their awareness of the Protectorate. The survey showed that at that time more than 10,000 people trekked in the mountains around St. Katherine - although nowadays the number has decreased to approximately 8,000. The results of the survey proved that it was possible to implement tourism in the area, and according to PAMU, to start a program that would have linked sustainable tourism with local community development. 

Since then, Ecotourism has become the primary goal of the Protectorate that is trying to conserve the natural environment of the Sinai region and sustain the well being of local people. According to John Grainger, project manager of the Protectorate, "the project aims at creating a program administrated according to the Bedouin management system." Unlike mass tourism, ecotourism causes less damage to the cultural environment, by trying to limit impact of tourism on Bedouin lifestyle, while simultaneously providing great economic help to the local community.
South Sinai Community Guards

The core of the Bedouin managed ecotourism program is represented by the figure of community guards, local Bedouins who have been made aware of their land by being in charge of helping tourists in trouble and preventing illegal activities such as poaching and vandalism. Mahmoud Mansour, one of the first Bedouins to be employed as a community guard, remembers when "I had to come down from the mountain and call the management of the Protectorate when a group of UN soldiers came to camp on Mount Sinai. They were spoiling the landscape by engraving the rocks with their names!"

Community guards, in fact, works in the mountain areas where most of the tourists go to camp and see the stunning "Sinai sunset". They also watch the four tracks of Wadi I'tlah and Tala', Mount Sinai, Wadi Arbaein and Wadi Shrayi, and Jebel Abbas Pasha. These half or full-day walks are the main attraction for the discerned tourist who prefers solitary walks to crowded beaches of most popular resorts.
Fansina': the Art of Sinai

Since 1996, the St. Katherine Protectorate's main concern has not only been tourism. It has successfully worked on other programs to study and support health care, specifically the growth of Bedouin children. It also has conducted extensive botanical, veterinarian, zoological and geological research aimed at conserving the natural environment of the area. 

But, one project in particular seems to embody the spirit of St. Katherine's Bedouin managed ecotourism. Its name is Fansina, and it will be fully effective in a few months. "Fansina, literally the art of Sinai, is going to be the name of the first company run predominantly by Bedouin women. The company, which will produce handicrafts of Bedouin style, is going to help the local community preserve traditional skills and, at the same time, generate income to sustain the local economy", says Muhammd Amin community development consultant.

Fansina is the second phase of a project that started 2 years ago, when a small group of Bedouin women occasionally met to sew handicraft sugar bags. Salma, young dark eyes surrounded by a colorful embroidered Bedoiun veil, comments "in the beginning we used to go to everybody's house to give work to people living in remote areas, but now we have a place for ourselves." Today, Salma holds regular workshops in a small Sharika - in English factory - where the women meet to work and socialize around a fire, according to the best Bedouin tradition.
A Strong Sun!

Trekking in the highest mountains of Egypt, historical tourism and backcountry hiking are the kind of activities visitors would embark on, once they tackle the four tracks of the St. Katherine Natural Protectorate.

The Mount Sinai walk is probably the most famous one, the one that tourists have been attracted to for centuries. This mountain represents a common link in the faith of Christians, Jews and Muslims. The Exodus, on one of the Old Testament Books in the Bible, reveals: "On the top of this mountain - that many believe it is Mount Sinai - the Prophet Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights, during which God presented him two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments of the Lord" - the basis of Jewish and Christian religious and social organization. From the path it is possible to see churches, chapels, mosques, and sacred sites, nestled in basins, and standing peacefully on summits. The walk to the Monastery of Saint Katherine is a wonderful holy experience, for the physical journey, there, mixes with the holy spirit of one of the oldest monastery in Egypt. 

The walk going from Wadi Arbaein to Wadi Shray is another exciting itinerary since it provides a spectacular backdrop to the colorful and subtle life in the wadis (in English valleys). The Arabian wolf together with the red fox, the hyena cobs and the Darcas gazelle are only a few examples of the wild animals that one can catch in the cold nights of the year.

Another amazing experience is the walk through Wadi I'tlah and Wadi Tala'. In the wadis one can listen to the sound of splashing and spluttering water springs when walking the red granite walls of these mountains.

Least but not last is the Jebel Abbas Pasha walk. The walk centers on the palace built by Abbas Hilmi I / Pasha of Viceroy of Egypt between 1849-1854, for a high altitude mountain retreat. The panoramic view from the top of Jebel Abbas Pasha is one of the finest in the high mountain area.

If all this doesn't slake one's thirst for adventure, the St Katherine Protectorate also offers a unique Bedouin mediated experience. In partnership with local people, the staff has refurnished some abandoned traditional houses and gardens in Wadi Gerba and turned them into a Bedouin ecolodge. This facility, with a capacity of about 18 persons, has been built to operate on the principal of minimal environmental impact. Managed by local Bedouins, the ecolodge will be available to the tourists in a few months as comfortable refuge where visitors find waterless composting toilets and solar watered showers. For the night, one has to use his own bedding to sleep on locally made mats, laid on raised platforms within the rooms or outside in the garden romantically looking at the stars.

The Future

The real challenge still has to arrive for the St Katherine Protectorate. The EU is going to financially support the Protectorate for one more year only. After that, the E.E.A.A. will take over the all project by appointing the director and funding all the activities. In fact, the final goals of the project was to develop the South Sinai area by making its inhabitants responsible for their own land and eventually appoint a management team entirely composed by locals.

Now, one can rise many doubts about the fact that six or seven years are a sufficient period of time to develop such a sense of awareness and responsibility in that population, and mainly in the local management. Especially when a sense of general dismay is present in a Protectorate community already frustrated by the recent collapse of the tourist market. Moreover, the imminent departure of John Grainger, the current charismatic project manager, could cause consistent problems to a management team that rarely proposes new initiatives and is too often concerned about individual reward ness. Not to talk about financial support that has probably never been a source of concern, but that, with the new "sponsor", could turn into the main one.

Does this mean that the coming year will see the decline of the St Katherine Protectorate? Probably not, if the up-coming Egyptian director will be as charismatic and innovative as the previous one - or as a few community members like to point out visionary - to ultimately turn this suffered and forgotten piece of land into an example for future valuable accomplishments. 

Getting There

From Cairo there is a 7-hour bus leaving every day at 11:00am, from the East Delta Bus station of Abbasiyya. The driver will drop you off at mahamiyya santa katerina (St Katherine Protectorate office). From St Katherine there is also a daily bus. It leaves at 6:00am. The one-way ticket costs 35LE. No booking is required in advance. You can also fly to Sharm el-Shaikh for a reasonable fair, and then take a ride, by bus or taxi, to St Katherine Protectorate.

Accommodation is cheap. The protectorate administration can provide you with a room for about 40LE per night in one of the Bedouin managed rest houses.
Info Contact:

Area Management Unit: St Katherine, South Sinai. Phone: 062 470032 Fax: 062 470033. Email:
stkparks@gega.net

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About Elisa Pierandrei
Elisa Pierandrei - Click to Enlarge

Elisa Pieranderi is a travel-added Italian journalist based in Cairo, Egypt. After pursuing a career in translation and linguistics - she speaks fluent Arabic, English and Spanish - Elisa decided to challenge herself and develop her writing skills with a Masters in “Journalism and Mass Communication” at the American University in Cairo. 

At the moment Elisa is freelancing for a few local newspapers by writing stories on art, history and travel in the Middle East. Elisa has recently published for the monthly magazine Egypt and Middle East Life and the weekly newspapers Middle East Times and Cairo Times.

Please visit her personal web page a leave your comments: http//digilander.iol.it/middleastoday/index.htm . (More about the writer.)

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