CAIRO : Egypt's Siwa Fort hopes for ecotourism. The 13th century structure offers eco lodges, vegetable gardens and Kershef facades.

Tucked away in Egypt's Western Desert, the Shai fortress once protected inhabitants against the incursions of wandering tribes. But now, there are hopes its renovation will attract ecotourists.

The 13th-century edifice, called ''Shali'' or ''home'' in the local Siwi language, was built Berber populations atop a hill in the pristine Siwa oasis, some 600 kilometers southwest of Cairo. The towering structure is made of kershef - a mixture of clay, salt and rock which acts as a natural insulator in an area where the summer heat can be scorching.

After it was worn away by erosion, and then torrential rains almost 100 years ago, the European Union and Egyptian company Environmental Quality International [EQI] began to restore the fortress in 2018, at a cost of over $600,000.

Dotted by thick palm groves, freshwater springs and salt lakes, the Siwa oasis's geographic and cultural isolation offers a rare eco-friendly getaway, far from Egypt's bustling urban communities. Its tourism model contrasts Egypt's mass approach to other areas, such as its Red Sea resorts in the east or along the Nile valley, especially in Luxor and Aswan in the south.

Employment Opportunities : Tourists began gravitating to Siwa from the 1980s, after the government built roads linking it with the northwestern city of Marsa Matrouh, the provincial capital on the Mediterrarnean. The government hasd called the oasis, registered as a natural reserve since  2002, a  ''therapeutic and environmental tourism destination.''

Eco-lodges offer lush vegetable gardens and kershef facades. Restoration works at the Shali fortress were carried out under the aegis of the Egyptian government, which has been pushing to make Siwa a  ''ecotourism destination''.

The project also includes setting up a traditional market and a museum on local architecture. ''It will certainly benefit us and bring tourists. Today, I can offer my palm for products inside Shali,'' said Adam Aboulkassem, who sells handicrafts in the fortress.

Events in the past decade outside the desert oasis have had a ripple effect in Siwa, and tourism slumped after political unrest that rocked Egypt and other countries in the Middle East in 2011. Foreign tourists arrival at the oasis have plummeted from around 20,000 in 2010 to just 3,000, said Mahdi al-Howeiti , director of the local tourism office. Domestic tourism has only partially made up for the sharp decline, he added.

Ailing infrastructure: This year, coronavirus put a brake on travel worldwide and dealt a further blow to arrivals. And though the project is sexy some as a way to bring back visitors, critics say it fails to address the concerns of 30,000 strong Siwi population, a Berber ethnic group. “No Siwi goes to Shali. We are attached to it, but from afar, like a landscape, “he explained.

Howeiti said there were more pressing issues for residents, such as fixing crumbled and unsafe roads or treating agricultural waste water tanager harms the cultivation of olives and date palms - key pillars of the local economy.

Tourism and Antiquities Minister Khalid al-Amani said at the inauguration that the fortress was a “cultural asset” and its renovation was “essential”. But he acknowledged that “we need to work on the infrastructure of the region, the airport and especially the roads. “

The closest airport to Siwa, located just 50 kilometers from the border with Libya, is restricted to the military.

But some locals remain skeptical, “The fortress was in danger of collapsing,” said Howeiti. In my opinion, it would have been to leave it as it is. These ruins have a history.” (AFP)


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