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Sunday, Nov. 8, 2009

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Home on the range: Some Bedouin people who have moved down from the mountainous interior to the coast now provide the surprisingly comfortable mounts for visitors' camel-dive safaris.

NATURAL SELECTIONS

Eco-tourism the camel-dive way

Villagers on the Sinai Peninsula coast in Egypt provide sustainable ways to desport yourself


It's 4 a.m. and I wake up on a beach on the Sinai Peninsula of eastern Egypt. The moon has set and the mountains of Saudi Arabia just 18 km away across the Gulf of Aqaba are silhouetted against the stars. The camel I rode here is sleeping nearby, and it is still so warm even in late October that a single blanket is all I need. If this is doing my bit for ecological tourism, I'm sold.

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Beasts of burden: Though not entirely innocent in terms of greenhouse-gas emissions, the "ships of the desert" we rode on to dive sites were surely more eco-friendly than fleets of four-wheel drives. ROWAN HOOPER PHOTOS

I'm here on vacation, but also to investigate ways we can travel in a more sustainable way. You might say it would be better if I hadn't taken this holiday at all — and you might be right. But people are always going to want to get away.

So what can we do to lighten our footprints?

According to the Bedouin here, we can go on a camel-dive safari — not that the "ships of the desert" themselves take a plunge, you understand. There are some 80,000 Bedouin in the Sinai, most of them living deep in the mountainous desert interior. Some of them, however, have moved to the coast, including to the small village where I'm now staying. They earn a living by providing camels for tourists who want a dive holiday with a difference.

I've come with Desert Divers, an outfit based here. It was founded by a chap named Said Khedr, who is renowned in these parts as the first-ever Bedouin to learn to dive. Apart from offering a different sort of dive trip, Said also wants to promote sustainable enjoyment of his country. To help him, he has a grant from the European Union-funded South Sinai Regional Development Program.

Egypt has a problem, and it's one shared by all countries with beautiful tourist destinations and, on a smaller scale, by their local governments. How do you protect the natural environment while at the same time creating jobs and generating income by encouraging tourism?

More than 1.2 million tourists visit the Red Sea each year, drawn by the same things that have drawn me: a beautiful marine environment and guaranteed good weather. They bring in $1.2 billion in foreign currency. But for how long can the place endure such pressure?

When we dived off the coast of Dahab, we saw that in some sites the coral had been all but wiped out. Corals around the world are dying because sea temperatures are rising as a result of global warming, and also because they are being damaged directly by tourists (like me) swarming over the reefs every day.

But further along the coast, at dive sites we could only reach on camelback, the coral was in better shape. There were lots of octopus, and I saw local women poking in rocks for them at low tide, just as I've seen people doing in Hachijojima in Japan.

A remora followed us for 30 minutes on one dive. These are the fish that attach themselves to sharks and other species and hitch a ride as they wait to gobble scraps from their hosts' prey or gobbets of their feces. In this case the remora had been stuck to a turtle, and when that powered away from us, the remora tagged along with the humans, perhaps contemplating sticking itself to a diver.

Then a cleaner wrasse swam into my ear and nibbled at whatever it found in there. These small fish with an electric-blue stripe specialize in cleaning hard-to-reach places of larger fish, and even picking bits of food out of their mouths. Though this one's attentions gave me a peculiar feeling, it also gave me a warm sense of acceptance into the underwater world that helped me resist the urge to swipe at it.

We stayed at a place in the desert called Ras Abu Galum. There were no hotels or roads there, only a few simple wooden shelters where a few families lived with their children. To get there, we'd loaded our camels with tanks of compressed air, food, water, and the rest of our dive equipment. The camels did the rest, and apart from an alarming moment when my humpbacked mount decided to take a short cut off the path and through the sea, riding them was surprisingly relaxing.

Does this sort of thing make a difference for better or worse in the global scale of things? I often wondered.

Next month, politicians from around the world will sit down in Denmark to arguably the most important meeting of our time. Certainly, the outcome of the United Nations Climate Change Conference Copenhagen (COP15 for short) — which is being held to thrash out a successor to 1997's Kyoto Protocol — could affect our ancestors for generations to come.

There are many sticking points before any deal can be reached, and one of the most basic is that most of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have been emitted by rich countries. Indeed, it is emissions-generating industrial production that has made them rich.

Why should the world's poorer countries not be allowed to do the same? Of course, they should be allowed to develop. But richer countries will have to help them leapfrog the polluting carbon-based economy and move straight to a new and sustainable model.

On a much smaller scale, the Bedouin living in Abu Galum want the same thing. They don't want to be desert nomads anymore, they want electricity and modern technology. Said is doing his bit — earning a living for his family and providing jobs for Bedouin through sustainable tourism.

My sense of acceptance into the marine world was illusory, but I hope at least that my intrusion there didn't leave too heavy a footprint.

Rowan Hooper stayed at Mirage Village in Dahab (www.mirage.com.eg/) and dived with Desert Divers (www.desert-divers.com).


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