A Sinai desert community in Egypt leads the way in agritourism

Maged El-Said, at right, saw an opening for Italian-style agritourism in the Sinai desert in 1994. (Supplied)
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Updated 01 March 2020

A Sinai desert community in Egypt leads the way in agritourism

  • Habiba village was started in 1994 by Cairo-born Maged El-Said and his Italian wife Lorena
  • It hosts a learning center that has partnered with universities to promote a new form of educational tourism

CAIRO: “Community is everything, surround yourself with beautiful souls and watch what happens. So much love, I feel it bubbling out of my chest,” writes Madison Cooper.

The experienced yoga instructor and assistant manager at The Kings Arms pub and music venue in Salford, UK, said this when describing her experience in the Habiba village, a remote beach community in the middle of Egypt’s South Sinai desert.

It was this feeling of peace and tranquility that brought Cairo-born Maged El-Said and his Italian wife Lorena to the Egyptian port city of Nuweiba to settle and eventually start the Habiba community in 1994.

The community is a village that hosts an eco-friendly beach lodge, an organic farm, the Sinai Palm Date foundation and a learning center partnered with universities and organizations around the globe to promote a new form of educational tourism by hosting professional certification courses in permaculture and agriculture ecosystems.

More than 90 percent of Egypt’s land is covered by deserts, Sinai being part of the Eastern desert that occupies more than 20 percent of the country’s surface area, with very few populated villages and cities along the Red Sea coastal strip.

“I am sure there is enormous potential to invest in our huge deserts. The hidden value is in the people if we learn from each other the best way of integrating management of resources,” El-Said said.

This, however, is easier said than done: El-Said, who is now in his sixties, spent almost 20 years taking “agritourism” from a concept to a meaningful business.

He succeeded in 2009, when tourists started coming to volunteer at the organic farm merely to enjoy the experience of isolated serene living.

Before that, El-Said spent several years doing a series of seminars and workshops and inviting local and international experts in organic farming to discuss the agritourism model.

His first introduction to the field was in Italy, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in Italian language and literature in the 1970s.

Italian agritourism gained traction around the time when the agricultural business became less profitable.

Farmers in Italy were giving up, transforming their farms and farmhouses into vacation homes where tourists could stay and experience farming.

“People come to enjoy the beautiful nature and the serene surroundings, eat clean food and leave with fresh ideas and a new perspective on life,” said El-Said when explaining the concept of agritourism.

While the idea is widespread in the US and many European countries, it remains nascent in MENA. Sporadic trials around the region are currently under way, including a licensing program launched by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities for farms willing to explore the concept and offer agritourism services.

Expanding the scope of its target community, the Habiba learning center has been working toward hosting a series of certificate program.

Among them are an internationally recognized Permaculture Design Certificate course that provides an introduction to sustainable living systems for a wide variety of landscapes and climates.

The move is intended to attract a more professional interna- tional audience and establish a new breed of educational tourism. El-Said has an ambitious plan for the future, hoping he can establish a desert research hub within his community and start replicating the model in other Egyptian resort cities by the year 2025.

“It is challenging but beautifully rewarding; people are resistant to change, but when they see a working model, it becomes easy for them to follow,” he said.

• This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.


Palestinian minister claims Israeli police physically abused him

Fadi Hidmi. (Supplied)
Updated 04 April 2020

Palestinian minister claims Israeli police physically abused him

  • East Jerusalem — with a population of 350,000 — has been all but ignored by the Israeli Ministry of Health in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic

AMMAN: Palestinian Minister of Jerusalem Affairs Fadi Hidmi was released by Israeli police on Friday afternoon after being arrested for the fourth time without charge.

Ministry spokesman Awad Awad told Arab News that Hidmi had been “warned” not to “move around” or “do any work in” Jerusalem in accordance with measures being taken to minimize the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).

Awad also claimed that Hidmi had been physically abused by the police, saying that the minister was “punched in the face and forced to wear a mask with blood on it.”

CCTV at Hidmi’s Mount of Olives house show that he was manhandled by Israeli police during his arrest in the early hours of Friday.

Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld confirmed the arrest.

Rosenfeld told the Israeli press that Hidmi was arrested “on suspicion of Palestinian activities in Jerusalem.”

He said police searched Hidmi’s home and confiscated documents as well as “large sums of money. Israeli media said that the police had confiscated NIS10,000 ($2,750) found in the house.

Hidmi, a Jerusalem resident, was the director of the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce and Industry before accepting his current job in the Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh’s government.

Before Hidmi’s release on Friday, Shtayyeh wrote on social media: “Israel targets who work for #Jerusalem, even at such critical moments as we work to save our people's lives from #COVID19.”

East Jerusalem — with a population of 350,000 — has been all but ignored by the Israeli Ministry of Health in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

Dr. Jamil Kousa, director of the St. Joseph hospital, told Palestine TV that he was only informed on March 25 that his hospital should be prepared to accept patients with COVID-19.

Ahmad Buderi, the coordinator of the Jerusalem Alliance — an organization launched to help combat COVID-19 — has said that people in the city are depending almost solely on local initiatives to deal with the pandemic.

Before his arrest, Hidmi launched the website madad.ps to coordinate the distribution of urgenly needed food and medical supplies to the city’s residents.

Walid Nammour, secretary-general of the Jerusalem Hospital Network, estimates that the city’s six hospitals need $7 million to to deal with the potential spread of COVID-19 in East Jerusalem.

Nammour told Arab News that 300-400 ventilators are needed and that only 26 are available at present.