Responsible tourism issues

Egypt tourism is focused on great ancient civilisations, heritage, people and culture and has undoubtedly had hugely positive impacts on its economy and local lifestyles, tourism income helping to sustain the country’s great ancient sites.

However, there are still many examples of irresponsible tourism in Egypt, from pollution to inequitable access to water, all inclusive resorts to exclusive land use that displaces local people. Egypt is a land of great and ancient civilisations, and so it is the impact not just on the environment we need to take into account as responsible visitors, but also on the people whose lands we travel to admire and revere. Here are some issues that shouldn’t be added to Egypt’s wonders of the world list.

People and culture in Egypt

Ralph Foulds, from our partner Encounters Travel:
“Now is a great time to visit, as the tourist numbers are still quite low, so prices are good and you won't have the traditional long waits in queues to get into the temples and tombs. The Egyptian people are even more welcoming than normal, which is saying something, and all our travellers are returning home talking about how safe they felt and how they'd love to go back.”

The fear factor

It's been some time since it dominated the front pages, but the Syria crisis is still very much ongoing. That said it's important to remember that Egypt and Syria are not neighbours. Even Cyprus is a heck of a lot closer to Syria than Cairo. However, there are still potential risks. The Russian Airbus A321 being brought down by a suspected terrorist bomb over the Sinai after leaving Sharm El Sheikh airport in October 2015 shocked the world and set fear among the travelling population. But our responsible tourism suppliers continue to travel to Egypt’s regions not deemed as being out of bounds by the FCO, support the local economy which depends hugely on tourism and provide lots of happy memories for many travellers. Fear is a strong emotion though, and the one advantage of turmoil is that right now, as some travellers stay away, the ancient sites, hotels and Nile cruises are quiet. And prices are very reasonable. 

What you can do
Don’t give into the fear factor as that is giving into terrorism. While we are reassured by experts – as well as the near one million tourists who travel safely to Egypt from the UK every year – that many regions of Egypt are not in immediate danger from terrorist threats, we encourage you to travel there and enjoy the country’s wonders. One piece of advice is to avoid public demonstrations. Often taking place on Fridays, they can get out of hand very quickly and tourists have been hurt and arrested in the past. Always check the FCO website for updates.

Nubian People

An indigenous group, 300,000 strong*, the Nubians' ancient villages and fertile lands were destroyed when the Aswan High Dam was built in the 1960s and the newly created reservoir, Lake Nasser, submerged places of great historic significance. As well as losing their physical and spiritual homes, 120,000 Nubian people were displaced to planted towns in Egypt or to Sudan. Some also set up home on Nile islands such as Seheil or Heisa. The Nubian people requested that the new lake be named Nubia, but the president chose to name it after himself. Since that time, Nubian people have struggled for recognition in Egyptian society and government. You can visit the Nubian Museum in Aswan which, when it opened, wasn’t even going to have the word ‘Nubian’ in title. The UN stepped in and threatened to pull funding, and officials changed their mind. It is only since the Egyptian Uprising of 2011 that Nubians have started to find a voice, however, fight for their land rights, protection of their language, one of the oldest on the African continent, and create tourism businesses.

What you can do
Seek out trips that include visits to Nubian villages and support them well. Visit the Nubian Museum in Aswan, and buy souvenirs from artisan businesses in the region. Read up more about the history and struggle of Nubian people on Minority Rights website. And for a poignant photographic study of the Nubian people, see the stunning work of photographer Nour el Refai.

*Source: National Geographic magazine
Iva Vidovic from our leading Egypt holidays partner, Memphis Tours:
“Nowadays, life in Egypt is very hard and people are in a constant battle for survival… Their inner stability and values come from their faith and family. One of the most common phrases used is Insha'Allah – or God willing – and it represents a promise for the future that is not quite defined yet. And when their life is at their lowest, they shrug their shoulders and sigh ma'alesh (never mind) and go to the coffee shop for tea and shisha (waterpipe). All of us here at Memphis Tours hope that with our help some of this laidback life will rub off on you and you will let the slow current of Egyptian spirit take you away with a smile. So, forget about stress of your daily routine and let go of any prejudice or misconceptions.”

Wildlife & the environment in Egypt

Irresponsible dolphin watching

If you want to go dolphin watching in Egypt, always seek out a responsible operator. They must show expertise not only in how to practise safe dolphin watching but also in recognising different species. This is because the way in which you approach dolphins, the boat speed and distance required depends on the species. And qualified, responsible skippers know what is what.

Swimming with dolphins is a tricky area as cetaceans should never be treated like they are in waterparks. It is vital that time limits on the duration spent with them are strictly enforced, as well as the number of swimmers – and if you have a responsible operator, they will ensure that no one is allowed to enter the water until the guide can tell the dolphins are at ease. Most importantly, never approach a dolphin, and do not touch them. If you are lucky they will come up to you – but this is their territory, nothing is guaranteed, so just relax and enjoy being in their space.

What you can do
Amanda Stafford, from our Egypt dolphin watching partner The Dolphin and Whale Connection:

“Be aware of how the driver approaches the animals. Ask: what’s their ethical policy, their good practices? They should have that written down. It’s about having sensitivity and respect, and learning about boat approaches for different species. Some skippers are so experienced, it’s like they know the language that each species speaks. They know their movements and how to move the boats. So if you see striped dolphins you just power up and go like the clappers – you keep a distance but you keep up with them. They never approach the boat. But with other species you slow down, and they all swim like a herringbone up to the bow. They’re all around you like you’re in the middle of a dolphin soup! So there are different approaches with different species and any operator in any area should know the animal and the way it behaves.”

Nile cruises, Nile loses

Nile cruises are extremely popular and, like most forms of tourism, there are responsible companies but there are also plenty of irresponsible ones too. Pollution caused by river cruises was being investigated on the Nile by the Travel Foundation before the 2011 Uprising, however, unrest in the country has meant that this research has been put on hold. Meanwhile the problem is not going away and, although you may be hard pushed to find a cruise supplier that has a green policy, you can voice your opinion on the subject. There are two types of tourist cruise boats: static ones called awamas that sit on the river banks, and then the floating hotels that are sometimes several storeys high. They are all obliged to have licences to ensure they have correct containers for sewage, don’t spill fuel and so on. The problem is that they are totally underpoliced, and so the pollution is still rife. If you see bad practice, tell your tour operators and tourist board. Ultimately they, and the tourism and environment ministers, listen to punters. Paying ones that is, as opposed to river ones.

What you can do
Consider taking a felucca sailing trip down the Nile, less pollution, more peace. And often run by local people too, sometimes tying in with indigenous Nubian communities en route.

How will climate change affect holidays in Egypt?

In 2022 Egypt hosted COP27, the United Nations’ climate change conference. Given the Egyptian government’s repression of human rights, it was a decision that also attracted a great deal of criticism. But it was also a very fitting location, given that this largely desert country is particularly vulnerable to the stresses of a warming climate.

Will climate change affect Red Sea holidays?

The climate crisis will result in warmer water temperatures, one of the leading causes of coral bleaching, which drives away marine life as they depend on live, healthy coral for food and shelter. That will make scuba diving and snorkelling in the Red Sea far less satisfying, reducing the number of available sites (which will lead to crowding), and the number of species on display.

It’s also likely that rising sea levels will wash away much of Egypt’s Mediterranean coastline, which will mean fewer and smaller beaches for sunbathers to enjoy.

Will climate change mean more dust storms in Egypt?

Many parts of the Middle East, including Egypt, are regularly affected by stifling dust storms that can cause or exacerbate breathing difficulties, and last for hours if not days. Climate change makes extreme weather events such as dust storms more likely, more severe, and more unpredictable so that travellers with conditions such as asthma may find visiting Egypt an unappealing prospect.

In cities such as Cairo, where the air quality is far from fresh and not many buildings are equipped to deal with a sudden dust storm, this will become more of an issue in the future.

What you can do
Give a clear signal to those in power that you want to see real action on climate change by voting for politicians who take the issue seriously.

When holidaying in Egypt, keep your showers to a minimum. This desert country already struggles to provide enough water for its own people, and climate change is only going to make that worse.

Coral reefs have enough trouble due to warming water temperatures, so if you’re diving or snorkelling in the Red Sea, use reef-friendly sunscreen that help to protect water quality, and marine life. Look for mineral-based products as opposed to chemical-based. And wear t-shirts or rash vests to minimise the amount of sunscreen you actually need to use.

Responsible tourism tips

Camel trekking is a tricky one because riding a camel in Egypt is almost as iconic as posing outside a pyramid. Camels are seen as being survivors, hardy and up for anything, but this isn’t actually true. In some cases, they are neglected, overworked, beaten and underfed. However, camel treks are an important source of income for local people and we aren’t taking a stance to ban them. We believe, like many animal welfare organisations, that they should be well cared for, given plenty of rest and food, and retired when they become too elderly to work. They should never be beaten to work either.

So check if your camel is looking healthy, not skeletal, if it seems alert and isn’t being beaten by its owner. If things aren’t looking good, take pics of the camel. Report them to your tour operator and the tourist board. You don’t have to name or show pictures of the owner, and risk them being punished personally. Just say that you don’t support mistreatment of camels in the name of tourism and that animal protection codes of practice should be adhered to.
It might be full of ancient wonders but Egypt has a far from archaic approach when it comes to catering for people’s access needs. Particularly for those with mobility issues. Travel with a specialist operator with years of expertise in creating itineraries around Egypt’s cultural gems for wheelchair users, with tip top accessible accommodation and transport. Or see Egypt from the Nile, staying on a 5* luxury adapted small cruise boat. Perfect for multi generational family holidays, for example. Sharm el Sheikh, once a small fishing town on the banks of the Red Sea, is now a sterile land of ever-expanding infrastructure and all-inclusive resorts and little else. It is culturally barren, turns a blind eye to many of Egypt’s traditions with regards to alcohol, dress codes and so on, but it does provide a lot of local employment. However so do so many other places that are much more responsible. Yes, Sharm has some great dive spots, but Dahab, so much less developed and very switched on to sustainability, has plenty too. Child sex tourism sadly does happen in parts of Egypt. The US State Department’s 2021 Trafficking in Persons report found that the Egyptian government is improving when it comes to addressing these horrific crimes, but that much work remains to be done. As responsible tourists, always report any suspect activities with regards to children to local authorities and, in particular, the tourism locations which are allowing it to happen.
The Code is an organisation that seeks to eliminate child sexual exploitation from the tourism industry:
"We can all play a role in keeping children safe, whether at home or abroad. If you see a child at risk of sexual exploitation while travelling, please take action and either report your concern directly to authorities or visit The Code's website to find the best reporting line."
There is a lot of cotton for sale in the markets and shops, but try and buy Fairtrade if you can as Egypt is one of the countries known for using child labour in cotton production. There is a Fairtrade shop in Cairo where you be guaranteed to buy locally sourced products produced ethically. Scuba diving is very popular in Egypt, but do ensure to use a responsible scuba diving organisation. You can read more in our guide to responsible scuba diving. And if you see any irresponsible activity, report it to HEPCA, an international NGO protecting the Red Sea and which has an excellent procedure for reporting violations. They recommend you get witnesses to violations and also photos if necessary. But if you travel with a responsible operator, you won’t have to! Sea turtles are precious visitors to the Red Sea, but their existence has been put at risk predominantly by the irresponsible overdevelopment of the coastline. However turtle watching outings are also big business now, so given that they have travelled such a long way to return to beaches to lay eggs, please ensure that you watch them in a responsible way. Keep things dark – so no flash photography, and no torchlight unless with red filter. Be very careful where you are walking, give the mother plenty of room to nest and do not approach her until all eggs are laid. In hatchling season, give them plenty of room to head to the sea, and do not help them. In general, do not touch them. They are wild animals, prone to disease. Only researchers and experts should be allowed to touch them. If you see any irresponsible activity, report it to HEPCA, as above.
The water debate in tourism has been upstaged by the carbon debate for years. People are becoming aware of the fact that the issue stretches way beyond not having your towels or sheets changed every day. And Egypt is certainly no exception, with a lot of heat and a lot of desert. And yet there are hotels filling their pools and golf courses greening their greens. Please use water wisely in Egypt. LGBTQ+ travel can be tricky and same-sex couples can face arrest, according to Amnesty International, campaigning for LGBTQ+ rights in Egypt, stating: “Individuals continued to face arrest, detention and trial on “debauchery” charges, under Law 10 of 1961, on the basis of their real or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.” LGBTQ+ travel websites do exist in Egypt, and are often marketed at tourists, and although they have not been banned, they are often policed. You will want to take photographs everywhere you go in Egypt, the colours and culture are so vibrant. But remember to respect people, always ask permission, give them time to respond and thank them even if they decline. Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country and so, although it is cosmopolitan in many areas, you do need to respect any cultural differences. Such as not drinking in public, dressing modestly, especially in rural areas where covering the legs, arms and shoulders is advised, and not being openly intimate in public. Using your left hand for greeting, giving or receiving food, or money doesn’t go down well either, as it is considered ‘unclean’ in Muslim – as well as in many other African – cultures. Do also remember to respect Muslim practices during Ramadan, as Muslims do not partake in any drinking, eating or smoking in public during daylight hours.
Written by Polly Humphris
Photo credits: [Page banner: Mr Seb] [Nubian People: Ahmed Hamed Ahmed] [: Ad Meskens]