Fish swimming off the coral rich coast of Egypt's Red Sea resort of Hurghada. Mohamed el-Shahed/ AFP
In serene turquoise waters off Egypt’s Red Sea coast, scuba divers ease among delicate pink jellyfish and admire coral — yet a rebounding tourism sector threatens the fragile marine ecosystem.
The Red Sea is a top scuba diving destination, but Egypt’s tourism sector was buffeted by a wave of security shocks through much of this decade, before a partial recovery since 2017.
A diving instructor in the town of Hurghada, a top resort, warned that the rebound brought dangers for the corals.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says coral reefs are among “the most beautiful, biologically diverse and delicate ecosystems in the world.”
It describes these resources as vital to maintaining food supply and protecting the shorelines of low-lying island nations.
"The revival of tourism in Egypt is a good thing, but it has increased pressure" on the reefs,
Along the seafront in the town of Hurghada, bazaars and resorts offer unbeatable prices to attract budget-conscious European visitors to a country whose vital tourism sector was battered by a 2011 uprising and multiple militants attacks.
Following the 2011 overthrow of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, tourist arrivals in Egypt plunged.
But the contribution of Egypt's tourism sector to GDP rose 16.5 percent last year to $29.6 billion (26.5 billion euros), the highest level since 2010, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
Egypt has not published its own official statistics for the year.
German tourist Daniel, 29, said he was partly attracted to Egypt by the low prices.
"It's a lot cheaper than the Caribbean," he said as he tanned his pale skin on a private beach in Hurghada.
Tourism revival good
Flippers on their feet and air tanks on their backs, the mostly European tourists swim in tranquil waters just off Hurghada.
It's "very beautiful," said an Estonian tourist as she clambered back onto the boat, her blond wet hair protruding from her black wetsuit.
Scientists consider the Red Sea's reefs the most climate change-resilient corals but say they are still under threat.
"The revival of tourism in Egypt is a good thing, but it has increased pressure" on the reefs, said Heba Shawky, managing director of the Hurghada Environmental Protection and Conservation Association.
The campaign group was founded in 1992 by diving professionals who were worried about the potential impact of mass tourism in the region.
Divers swim off the coast ofEgypt’s Red sea resort. Mohamed el-Shahed
Shawky said the NGO has set up around 1,200 buoys on various dive sites to prevent the use of anchors, which damage corals.
"It's about limiting the number of users per day to tackle the problem of the growing number of boats," Shawky said.
Abdallah pointed to the absence of highly polluting industries such as steel, cement or ceramics production in the region.
Need to do more
With up to 12 million tonnes of plastic entering our oceans every year, the UNEP believes marine plastic pollution is one of the most pressing environmental challenges of our time.
"We are making a lot of effort, but we need to do more," said Mahmoud Hanafy, a professor in marine biology at Suez Canal University and an advisor to Shawky's association.
He urged authorities to declare some reefs protected sites to prevent them being "over-exploited".
He also suggested following the lead of Australia and the Maldives by creating artificial reefs, sometimes with 3D printing, to ease the pressure on natural corals.
Unlike other parts of Egypt, "we don't have pyramids or temples," she said.
"We have living resources under water. So by preserving the environment, we support the tourism industry."
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