"The average Egyptian measures the health of the tourism sector by the numbers announced about tourists’ arrivals. While the link between these numbers and the well-being of the sector is there, this indicator needs to be further developed to include the economic, environmental and social impacts in order for it to properly address the true impact on the country"
Emad Hassan is currently an energy advisor to the Minister of Tourism in Egypt, leading the Ministry’s efforts on green transformation in support of sustainable tourism. He has over 30 years of global experience in the energy efficiency, clean energy and environmental protection fields with assignments in 16 coutries and long-term presence in the U.S., Jordan and Egypt. He started his professional energy career in 1984 in the U.S. after receiving his Master degree in Architecture and Urban Planning from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) focusing on energy efficiency. He has held various positions at Southern California Edison Company, Bechtel Consulting and Nexant Inc, Between 2009-2012, he served as an energy efficiency advisor to Egypt’s ‘Supreme Energy Council’ led by Egypt’s Prime Minister, where he oversaw the development of a roadmap to advance Egypt’s energy efficiency agenda.
Since 2014, the Ministry of Tourism (MOT) in Egypt has been developing the necessary foundation to advance its sustainable tourism agenda that ultimately supports national and global sustainable development objectives. Among the key activities that MOT has managed to successfully pursue so far was the establishment of the ‘Green Tourism Unit’ (GTU) to help build an institutional capacity within MOT and the launch of the ‘Green Star Hotel’ (GSH) program as a tool to encourage local hotels to adhere to environmental and social standards.
Ecoclub: Besides being a cradle of civilization, Egypt is very likely also a cradle of tourism - Ancient Greeks and Romans among others were travelling as tourists along the Nile to admire, and sometimes scrawl graffiti on, what was to them also, incomparable ancient monuments, the pyramids. According to reports, 2018 is a great year with visitor numbers and revenue returning to pre-revolution levels. With areas bordering the Nile once more bearing the brunt of archaeological tourism pressures, which are added to pressures from an extremely dense population in these very areas, do initiatives such as the ‘Green Star Hotel’ (GSH) program have a real chance of improving sustainability in tourism transport, hotel water-saving and waste management or does Egypt need green initiatives cutting across all economy sectors?
Emad Hassan: The GSH program is a marketing tool in the first place, it was developed to encourage local hotels to adhere to international environmental and social standards mainly to increase their competitiveness in the green hospitality space while also reducing carbon footprint as a by-product. These standards cover measures such as energy efficiency, renewable energy, water savings, solid waste management and others that are strictly tied to the hotel operation. It wasn’t developed to capture the entire spectrum of sustainability measures in tourism such as transport, and others. However, promoting the adoption of a greener culture in tourism activity will certainly expand into complementing elements such as transport. Today, our green hotel base has about 80 hotels with approximately 20,000 rooms spreading over 15 different tourism destinations which will eventually require attention to greener means of transport. There is a project supported by the UNDP focused on sustainable transport that is currently being developed in Egypt, and we at the Ministry of Tourism are keeping close coordination to ensure synergy with our green initiatives.
Ecoclub: Such a huge heritage (huge in importance as well as in size and area covered) may be both an obstacle and an opportunity when it comes to diversifying funds and decentralising Egypt's tourism product. Will marketing emphasis on Ecotourism & Community tourism be an appropriate and effective way to rebrand Egypt as a responsible and safe destination and lessen overcrowding, or should more emphasis also be placed on Islamic tourism/family tourism versions of the mainstream model?
Emad Hassan: It would not be fair to assume that one type of tourism activity can brand Egypt in a certain way. Egypt is blessed with a large number of tourism experiences that can be offered to visitors/guests, a situation that in itself is a challenge for how to brand tourism in the country. Being labelled as ‘responsible’ or ‘safe’ however, is generic and cross-cutting – it speaks for how a country acts responsibly with regard to protecting its natural resources as well as keeping its social and environmental issues in focus as it crafts its economic development agenda. We aim to use green tourism or Ecotourism as examples of how to apply responsible tourism criteria so that it can be applied in other tourism types in a customized way. For safety, I’m not sure this is a branding issue, as a tourist, you are supposed to be safe! No compromise there, unless you decide to go for an open safari without a protected car or knowledgeable expert staff.
Ecoclub: In nearly all countries, meticulous technical reports full of innovative green ideas usually gather dust on a shelf or are preserved for future historians in the darkness of overcentralised government agency drawers. What initiatives is the Green Tourism Unit of the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism undertaking to spearhead green ideas as well as speed up and de-centralise decisions?
Emad Hassan: This is the kind of question I like to be asked. In addition to the successful Green Star Hotel program, the Green Tourism Unit (GTU) is actively pursuing the development of a green portfolio so that more areas are covered. On the agenda is the interest to develop green standards for “Green Destinations’ as opposed to a single hotel. Under that, the issue of transport, irrigation, marine life and protecting endangered species etc. will be covered. Additionally, GTU is in discussion with various players on the climate change front to allocate attractive financing mechanisms linked to the climate funding to encourage the sector to consider green transformation measures. Last but not least, the development of green indicators is a file that the GTU has started working on but further work will still have to be pursued in order to develop a set of useful indicators to measure progress.
The Green Tourism Unit (GTU) at the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism (MOT) has been promoting different approaches to increase energy efficiency and the move towards renewable energy technologies in the hotels sector despite the obvious challenges faced by the tourism sector at large. This was mainly driven by the need to reduce pressure on the treasury budget as a result of subsidizing end use energy forms, and by the desire to speed up green transformation and reduce the sector’s carbon footprint.
Ecoclub: Do you feel that travel advisories for Egypt and other countries are counter-productive in that they actually encourage men of violence to disrupt tourism? Are there any better alternatives?
Emad Hassan: Travel advisories are important to give potential visitors the right to make planning decisions in light of certain local or regional conditions. However, there are the useful travel advisories and there are the less-informed travel advisories and those are the ones that usually hurt. Egypt is located in a geographically dynamic area with some conflicts and political issues that make it in the centre of the news all the time and as such, travel professionals take the easy way out and issue these advisories. We frequently suffer from that here in Egypt. However, I am not sure that advisories give a motive to outlaws to roam around disrupting tourism activities.
Ecoclub: Tourism development planning is typically complex and involves many agencies, local governments, private stakeholders, and last but not least, local communities. How does the average Egyptian, who does not work in the Tourism sector, really feel about the Egyptian Tourism model? Are complaints about cultural sensitivities and benefits not reaching everyone and communities not being adequately consulted about the extend, location and type of tourism development by private companies valid and what is being done to address such complaints?
Emad Hassan: The average Egyptian measures the health of the tourism sector by the numbers announced about tourists’ arrivals. While the link between these numbers and the well-being of the sector is there, this indicator needs to be further developed to include the economic, environmental and social impacts in order for it to properly address the true impact on the country. The discussion about ‘complaints’ related to the tourism model in Egypt is a complicated one since not everyone understands the ‘model’ clearly, yet they do offer their perspectives and judgements. Just like any sector in the world, it has things that work well and others that need to be amended or updated to keep up with the time. Interestingly, when tourism seasons are busy and hotels are enjoying over 80% occupancies, you don’t hear any intellectual discussions about the ‘model’, but you hear experts touting their success.
I think that the global tourism market is constantly evolving and dynamic with demand patterns always changing and sensitive to geopolitical conditions. Any country that considers tourism to be an important economic pillar has to develop its market intelligence and understands the nature of its different targeted source markets to allow it to adjust its policies and local strategies in order to manoeuvre through these changes.
Ecoclub: Overtourism is the current international buzzword. Some feel it is a real problem, others that it is a rich man's problem. Whatever the case, one way to combat overtourism is to expand the area where tourism takes place. In this respect, are there limits to how far coastal resorts can spread along Egypt's 3,000 km coastline given water scarcity, fragile desert areas and marine corals, if stringent sustainability standards are met?
Emad Hassan: Really hard to answer this question in the context of green tourism as this requires a look into the long-term sustainable development vision and the planned tourism activities.
Ecoclub: What new initiatives would you like to see from the upcoming Global Sustainable Tourism Council Conference in Botswana (GSTC2018) and GSTC in general in relation to your work with sustainable tourism in Egypt?
Emad Hassan: Our Green Star Hotel program uses GSTC-recognized standards for several years now, and we decided to go for program accreditation from the GSTC, so we’re hoping that the process would be simple and more encouraging for others to do the same. As for the annual meeting in Botswana, I am very pleased that GSTC is looking for ways to support the Sustainable Tourism Certification Alliance in Africa and there is a half day dedicated to discuss the way forward, so I am looking forward to finding ways to support certification activities in Africa.