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, with income from tourism helping to sustain the country’s great ancient sites.

However, there are still many examples of irresponsible tourism in Egypt, from inequitable access to water and pollution in the mighty River Nile, to mistreatment of animals including dolphins and camels.

Responsible visitors should take into account not only environmental and wildlife issues but also the impact of tourism on people. All-inclusive resorts around the coast have made some areas no-go for local people, while supporting independently owned Nubian tourism businesses can help an endangered culture and language survive.

Keep reading to learn about some issues that shouldn’t be added to Egypt’s wonders of the world list.

How safe is Egypt for travel?

While travellers are advised to be cautious in some areas in Egypt, popular destinations such as Cairo, Sharm El-Sheikh, Dahab and the Nile between Aswan and Luxor are all considered safe according to current FCO advice. Nearly half a million British tourists visit Egypt every year, and the vast majority of trips are entirely trouble-free. As in many parts of the world, there is a risk of terrorism, and historically some attacks have targeted tourists, but the risk is predominantly in the North Sinai region where very few trips go.

LGBTQ+ travellers should note that, while same-sex relationships are not illegal in Egypt, the law criminalises sexual relations between men. The LGBTQ+ community has been subjected to increasing discrimination over the last few years.

Female travellers can, unfortunately, expect a bit of harassment in Egypt, with catcalling on the street a frequent annoyance, usually from young men. Ignore it, if you can, and when visiting local bars, try and go in a mixed group to avoid hassle.

What you can do
The vast majority of people who visit Egypt have a wonderful time and return home with many happy memories. And of course, millions of Egyptians who make a living from tourism rely on people to keep coming. Exercise due caution by always checking the latest guidance from your government and avoiding public demonstrations, which can get out of hand very quickly.

People and culture in Egypt

Nubian culture & indigenous rights in Egypt

Nubians, the indigenous people of southern Egypt and northern Sudan, are estimated to make up about three percent of the Egyptian population. In the 1960s, the Aswan High Dam was built and the newly created reservoir, Lake Nasser, submerged ancient Nubian villages, fertile lands and many places of great historic significance.

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 and compensation for their loss only began in 2019.

As well as losing their physical and spiritual homes, some 120,000 Nubian people were displaced to planted towns in Egypt or to Sudan, forced to seek employment far from the river. Some also set up home on Nile islands such as Seheil or Heisa.

Today there are only nine Nubian villages along the Nile and they’re a popular tourist attraction, but there is also an element of ‘cultural performance’ that the younger generation of Nubians especially resent. There is a growing push for Nubians to reclaim their heritage and culture, as well as traditional languages such as Kenzi (Mattokki) and Fadicca that are some of the oldest on the African continent but, with a widespread diaspora, have largely fallen into disuse.

What you can do
Seek out trips that include visits to Nubian villages and support them well. Visit the Nubian Museum in Aswan, which, when it first 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.

Many Nubians are now opening up tourism businesses rather than simply having elements of their culture used as passing tourist attractions. You can buy souvenirs from artisan businesses in the region. Read up more about the history and struggle of Nubian people. For a poignant photographic study of the Nubian people, see the stunning work of photographer Nour el Refai. You can also seek out the documentary films of Hafser Amberkab, a leading voice among Nubian people seeking to rediscover their heritage.

Iva Vidovic, from our leading Egypt holidays partner, Memphis Tours says: “One of the most common phrases used in Egypt is Insha’Allah – or God willing. It represents a promise for the future that is not quite defined yet. When Egyptians feel their life is at its lowest, they shrug their shoulders and sigh ma’alesh (never mind) then go to the coffee shop for tea and shisha (waterpipe). Hopefully this laidback life will rub off on some visitors too, and the slow current of Egyptian spirit take you away with a smile.”

Wildlife & the environment in Egypt

Is it ethical to swim with dolphins in Egypt?

Egypt has serious problems with how it treats wildlife, particularly dolphins. There are several water parks and zoos around the country that offer visitors the chance to swim with, cuddle and have their photos taken with captive dolphins. Some of these places, such as the execrable Dolphin World in Hurghada, also feature dolphin ‘shows’ where you can watch these beautiful, intelligent creatures play volleyball or paint pictures. It’s unnatural, it’s cruel and it should be avoided at all costs.

he best way to spend time with these wonderful animals is watching them from a boat on a responsibly operated tour, so that any stress or danger to the dolphins is kept to a minimum. In these situations, crews 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.

If you really want to try swimming with dolphins in Egypt, always do it in the wild with a responsible operator. 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 and nothing is guaranteed, so just relax and enjoy being in their space.

What you can do
Amanda Stafford, from our dolphin watching partner The Dolphin and Whale Connection, share her tips: “Be aware of how the driver approaches the animals. Ask: what is 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 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.”

Above all – please, never visit any theme park, water park or ‘dolphinarium’ where marine species are captive, trained to perform unnatural tricks, or brought into physical contact with members of the public for cuddly photo opportunities that can cause them stress or injury.

Why is Egypt having a water crisis?

Egypt suffers from water poverty, unable to meet its citizens’ clean water needs for food and washing. This is a desert country, of course, and a booming population has put severe strain on water supply. But the situation is likely to get much worse before it gets better.

The Nile river, from which Egypt draws 90 percent of the water it needs, has two main tributaries: the White Nile and the Blue Nile. Almost all of the Nile waters downstream originate from the Blue Nile, which begins in Lake Tana in Ethiopia. As of 2020, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam has been in operation. It will take up to seven years to fill the reservoir, after which Egypt and neighbouring Sudan fear their water supply will be significantly reduced.

For Egypt, which has for decades been accused of taking the lion’s share of the Nile water and whose economy depends on the river, the impact could be immense. As water levels sink, regional tensions over the dam and its repercussions are on the rise.

And then there is the climate crisis. With such low rainfall, and economic reliance on one river, Egypt is particularly vulnerable when it comes to water shortages.

What you can do
When travelling in Egypt, appreciate that the tourism industry will dominate much of the country’s clean water supply in hotels and resorts to ensure that visitors can stay clean and hydrated. In other parts of Egypt, people will be getting by with far less. With that in mind, try to keep your own water usage to a minimum – skip the baths, and have just the one short shower a day if you can.

Try to avoid accommodations that have swimming pools or large gardens, as these require a massive amount of water to maintain – water that would have far better uses elsewhere.

Responsible tour operators will aim to minimise the use of plastic on their trips. One way that can be done is by using large water containers to refill smaller bottles, so be sure and bring your own reusable bottle when you travel, and ask your tour operator what else they are doing to reduce water consumption and the usage of plastic bottles.

How does tourism affect the Nile river?

Cruising along the Nile is extremely popular and, like most forms of tourism, there are responsible companies but there are plenty of irresponsible ones too. The river is severely under-policed and while vessels are obliged to have licences to ensure they have correct containers for sewage, don’t spill fuel and so on, not all of them do, and so pollution is rife.

The other major cause of pollution in the Nile is the scourge of plastic, which as well as being unsightly chokes the river and poses a danger to marine life before it ends up floating around in the Mediterranean Sea.

Due to pollution and the risk of schistosomiasis, an infection caused by parasitic worms, you’re best off not swimming at all in the Nile, and definitely not drinking from it.

What you can do
Consider taking a wind-powered felucca sailing trip down the Nile: less pollution; more peace and quiet. They’re often run by local people too, sometimes tying in with indigenous Nubian communities en route.

Responsible cruise operators will ensure that they are using vessels that don’t pollute the river with the deliberate release of sewage or fuel. They will also aim to keep the use of plastic onboard to a minimum, and try not to let anything they do use end up in the water.

And of course, responsible travel companies can affect the Nile in many positive ways too, such as by providing employment and a valuable income for communities alongside the river. Some smaller cruise vessels, such as traditional feluccas, are able to moor up at jetties along the river where they can buy fresh local produce for meals and snacks.

If you see bad practises, tell your tour operator and report the boat to the tourist board. Ultimately they, and the tourism and environment ministers, listen to punters. Paying ones that is, as opposed to river ones.

Is it ethical to take a camel ride in Egypt?

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.

What you can do
Before taking a camel ride, take a good look at the animals. If they look unhealthy, skeletal, exhausted or otherwise mistreated, give it a miss. The same goes if you witness the owner shouting at or beating the camel. If, however, the camel is standing there placidly, chewing its cud, this is a sign that it’s relaxed and content.

Responsible tour operators will never encourage you to take a camel ride if they believe the animals are not well cared-for. Report any incidents you see of abuse; take pictures if you can, and send to your tour operator and perhaps 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.

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

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]