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.


Coronavirus crisis in Egypt has benefits

A man travels on a scooter past the closed El-Sayeda Zainab Mosque in Cairo. (Reuters)
Updated 31 March 2020

Coronavirus crisis in Egypt has benefits

  • The Central Bank of Egypt has directed all local banks to delay the collection of credit liabilities for six months without any rates or fines

CAIRO: People around the world are living in uncertain times as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues to spread. Fatalities and infections are rising as cities and countries go into lockdown.
Egypt is under a partial lockdown, forcing people to stay, work and learn at home. Yet behind this massive change and a fear of the unknown, COVID-19 has brought advantages.
Ever since Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi decided to close schools and universities for two weeks, starting on March 15, respect for the government has increased, especially on social media.
“Suddenly the government is laying down a series of preemptive actions to slow down the spread of the virus,” Mohamed Badr, 32, a Cairo resident, said. “They disregarded the economic impact and focused on the safety of the people which made us all proud.”
There have been diplomatic gains. China’s Ambassador to Cairo Liao Liqiang said that China and Egypt are partners and true friends, lauding Egypt’s support to Chinese efforts to combat the virus.
The Central Bank of Egypt has directed all local banks to delay the collection of credit liabilities for six months without any rates or fines.
The government’s order to shut down cafes and malls during curfew hours has led to a ban on the smoking of hookahs.
With fears over infections and with a dusk-to-dawn curfew in place, there is less consumption of unhealthy food.
There are fewer road accidents too. In 2018, there were 8,480 road accidents, according to the Bureau of Statistics. The number is expected to plunge this year due to the drop in vehicles on the road.

FASTFACT

Ever since Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi decided to close schools and universities for two weeks, respect for the government has increased.

Working from home is the new normal. The culture of work from home is forcing its way in society as many learning technologies and cloud solutions are connecting homes and workplaces.
“When I used to invite people for a Zoom meeting they were surprised. Today, it’s a normal practice and many clients actually prefer this option,” a sales representative in Cairo said.
And with school and college students stuck at home, educational institutions have quickly taken up distance learning.
With millions of people now stuck in isolation, many are using the opportunity to get creative. Videos on social media show people developing hobbies, tricks, cooking skills and paintings.
Corporations are accelerating digital transformation. Several companies are racing to implement digital and cloud technologies to manage their businesses remotely. Several telco and financial institutions pushed their services online and through contact centers rather than branch visits.
Doctors are finally getting some credit. They have long called for better salaries and benefits but their requests have fallen on deaf ears. The virus has now brought some hope for a better package in the near future.
The environment is cleaner and less polluted. And now, everyone has more time to reflect.