The Red Sea is one of the world’s most precious marine ecosystems and one of Egypt’s most important tourist attractions. It accounts for almost 80 per cent of tourism in Egypt.
Not only is it home to some of the most beautiful varieties of fish and coral reefs, almost 1,000 different fish species and 230 hard coral species, 14 per cent of these cannot be found anywhere else in the world. The Red Sea is home to nine of the world’s endangered species, including whale sharks, manta rays and scalloped hammerheads.
It may also hold the secret to saving the rest of the world’s oceans. The Gulf of Aqaba is home to super-corals that are resistant to rising sea temperatures and coral bleaching, which make them extremely valuable as we look for solutions to the climate crisis. Between 2014 and 2017, 75 per cent of the world’s tropical coral reefs were damaged by heat-induced coral bleaching.
Experts note that there were no mass bleaching events in the Gulf of Aqaba. Without steps to stop rising ocean temperatures and protect marine ecosystems from man-made threats, 90 per cent of coral reefs worldwide will be threatened by 2030 and almost 100 per cent by 2050.
Most of the Earth’s oxygen comes from our oceans, making the marine ecosystem vital for our long-term survival. The Red Sea offers hope with corals that not only survive in higher temperatures, but it may also become more efficient in producing oxygen at higher temperatures.
The increase in tourism in the Red Sea presents both a problem and an opportunity. Increased numbers of visitors add stress on the coral reefs, but they also present a chance to shift to more sustainable tourism practices. With the encouragement of motivated Dahab-based dive centres, the Chamber of Diving and Watersports (CDWS), in partnership with Eco-Dahab, launched a pilot initiative last March in Dahab in South Sinai called “Adopt-A-Reef.”
This is focused on engaging dive centres in raising environmental awareness amongst the diving community and protecting dive sites and marine life by encouraging Dahab residents, especially local businesses, to take part in protecting the Red Sea.
The initiative is part of a growing movement to shift the tourism industry to more sustainable practices, by showing how small businesses can be champions in protecting the environment. So far, 10 diving centres are participating in the “Adopt-A-Reef” pilot programme – Fantasea Divers Dahab, Dahab Divers Lodge, Scuba Seekers, Penguin Divers Club, H2O Divers Dahab, Sea Dancer, Red Sea Tribe, Bubbles Team, Circle Divers and Red Sea Relax. The participating dive centres are responsible for ensuring that adopted dive site areas are clean and observing coral reefs and marine life to monitor their health.
“Adopt-A-Reef” is collaborating with the Ministry of the Environment and the South Sinai Protectorate to provide dive centres with resources to implement projects that minimise harm by visitors. One such project was the installation of a line of buoys at Bannerfish Bay, a popular beach in Dahab, to guide tourists away from shallow reefs.
Sea Dancer, a dive centre in Dahab, had identified that the corals in their adopted reef were being damaged by tourists walking on them. The South Sinai Protectorate provided the materials, and with the help of the H2O Dive Centre the buoy line was installed.
These small, localised solutions can add up to a big change. “Adopt-A-Reef” is just one of the ways that businesses with a vested interest in protecting the Red Sea can get support and work together to create lasting solutions.
Green Fins, a sustainable management certification for dive and snorkel centres launched by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) and managed internationally by the Reef World Foundation, was launched in Egypt in 2020. Managed by the Chamber of Diving and Water Sports nationally, it offers resources, training and support for dive centres to improve their environmental practices and reduce harm to the reefs.
Trash left behind by visitors is another major issue. Everything from plastic bags and bottles, to food wrappers and containers and cigarette filters wash into the sea and can kill marine life by suffocating them or break down into micro-plastic that pollutes the food chain. Local groups and businesses across Egypt have been organising beach and underwater clean-ups, which decrease the debris deposited in the sea. This is an important step, but it isn’t enough.
The Ministry of the Environment in partnership with the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, the Ministry of Civil Aviation, the Egyptian Hotel Association and CDWS launched a Marine Conservation Campaign designed to raise awareness among visitors of how they can help limit harm to the Red Sea marine ecosystem.
According to Egypt’s 2021 Voluntary National Review of the Egypt Vision 2030, integrating civil society and the tourism sector is one of the key developments in achieving UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 and preserving life below water and protecting marine and coastal ecosystems.
We all need to do our part. We should all carry reusable water bottles with us, refilling them instead of buying bottled water, and we should limit single-use plastic waste by bringing reusable packaging, like cloth bags and reusable containers. We need to avoid toxic sunscreen with ingredients like oxybenzone, homosalate and octocrylene, which are toxic both to humans and to marine life. We should dispose of all trash, including cigarette filters, properly. And we should never take a souvenir like broken corals or sea shells from the beach.
Get involved. When you can, volunteer in local clean-ups. Follow groups like Imagine-If, Banlastic, VeryNile, Greenish and Project Azraq to learn more about how you can participate in protecting Egypt’s stunning and vital ecosystems.
A responsible tourist would leave nature as they found it, leaving only footprints and taking only memories away with them.
The writer is the founder of Eco-Dahab, South Sinai.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly