Egypt's Red Sea Mountain Trail creates jobs for local Bedouin community
When Ben Hoffler, a trail developer who has been based in Egypt for the last 10 years, spent the 2000s hiking in the mountains that shape the Sinai Peninsula, he used to stand and look toward mainland Egypt, fascinated by the range of hills that rose on the other side of the Red Sea. "I had the urge to cross and see whether those mountains would have a similar story to Sinai," he told Al-Monitor.
Hoffler, whose main focus is exploring synergies between modern tourism and the conservation of ancient nomadic heritage, developed a plan for the area and it has finally been realized. On Jan. 28, the first long-distance hiking trail in mainland Egypt opened, designed and prepared with Hoffler's help by the local Bedouins over the last five years. The Red Sea Mountain Trail, a 170-kilometer (105-mile) route, takes 10 days to hike. The route was created by members of the Khushmaan clan in their traditional territory. The Khushmaan clan is part of the Maaza, one of Egypt's biggest Bedouin tribes, whose roots trace back to the Hejaz of the Arabian Peninsula and whose territory lies in the northern half of Egypt's Red Sea mountains. Among them is Jebel Shayib el Banat, mainland Egypt's highest peak at 2,187 meters (7,175 feet).
The official inauguration of the trail will be held the first weekend of April in a ceremony in Hurghada, a coastal city in Red Sea governorate. However, a few hikers have already completed parts of it.
Hamsa Mansour is one of them. "You find very vast landscapes and vast desert," she told Al-Monitor. "The trail is very adventurous and challenging for hikers … because it has not been walked for a very long time."
The Red Sea Mountain Trail is a sister project of the award-winning Sinai Trail, which expanded last May into a 550-kilometer (342-mile), 42-day hike across South Sinai involving the eight Bedouin tribes of the region. Its success encouraged the establishment of a similar initiative in the Red Sea mountains.
"What we had created in Sinai made us imagine the possibilities on the other side of the Red Sea," explained Hoffler. He said that after completing the smaller Sinai project with just a few people, "it grew into something that was a true achievement — creating jobs and economic support that is important to [sustaining] Bedouin culture."
The main goal of the Red Sea Mountain Trail is to boost sustainable and environmentally friendly tourism in the region. The tourism industry along the Red Sea has traditionally centered on big resorts and diving, in which the traditional lifestyle of the Bedouin has no place, and little attention has been paid to sustainable adventure tourism and its greater impact on local communities.
According to a 2018 report by the Adventure Travel Trade Association, 65% of total revenues generated by the Jordan Trail remain in local economies and 84% of all jobs created are also local. By comparison, only 14% of the revenues and the 36% of the jobs generated by the mass tourism industry in the Dead Sea remain with locals.
"We are creating a new tourist industry that empowers communities that have been traditionally sidelined by big business and beach resort tourism," argued Hoffler.
The project is fully owned and managed by the Bedouin and it's overseen by the Red Sea Mountain Trail Association, a small tribal organization headed by Sheikh Merayi Abu Musallem, the head of the Khushmaan clan.
The Sinai Trail has created 50 direct jobs, showing that such initiatives can generate employment for the local community. Those jobs include guides, cooks, cameleers and drivers, and the indirect work created around it has reached camps, orchards, handicrafts and shops.
"The main goal of the project is to create development within very marginalized and hard-to-reach local areas, but also to preserve the knowledge that Bedouin have held over hundreds of years," Omar Samra, the first Egyptian to climb Mount Everest in 2007 and one of the project's co-founders, told Al-Monitor. "If tourism is not successful in continuing this livelihood, this kind of culture will eventually go away."
"To have those tribes across the Red Sea understand that we appreciate their culture and what they are doing, and to understand the value of it, it is what will make them want to hold on to their culture," said Mansour, the Egyptian trekker, adding, "I could see in their eyes that when they realize how valuable all this is. They feel so good about it, as if it was a relief that they don't have to get away to catch up, in a way, with modern life."
The organizers estimate that around 70% of the approximately 850 hikers who have hiked the Sinai Trail are Egyptians, often in short trips of two to five days, while the other 30% are foreigners, who tend to take longer trips of around 10 days. They expect the Red Sea Mountain Trail to benefit from its location close to well-known tourism areas.
"The trail is very close to Hurghada, which has an international airport, so it is more accessible," said Samra. "The Hurghada zone, as far as security goes, is in the green zone… it has accessibility both from a distance point of view and also in terms of … security."
Esraa Abdelmoneim, an Egyptian hiker from Cairo who has done the Sinai Trail and plans to hike the Red Sea Mountain Trail, considers the new route a great opportunity to see another side of Egypt. "It is not just a physical and spiritual trip, it is also educational, because you learn a lot about geography, geology and you get to see different kinds of clans," she told Al-Monitor. "It is beautiful on many levels."
Even though the trail is still so new, the organizers hope to expand it into a 1,000-kilometer (621-mile) route running the length of Egypt's Red Sea. They want to involve the Ababda and Bisharin tribes, whose traditions are not entirely Arab but also African, and whose territory extends to the border with Sudan.
For Samra, who has been deeply involved in promoting sustainable and adventure tourism in Egypt, the trail projects go in line with the kind of tourism that Tourism Minister Rania Al Mashat is trying to implement in the country. "Her motto is that tourism should be people-to-people, and nothing achieves this objective more than projects like the Red Sea Mountain Trail," he argued, adding, "Trail tourism is a worldwide trend and also a regional one."
"Jordan's, Lebanon's and Turkey's trails are all proving very popular, and Oman has some short ones," said Tony Howard, a British climber and hiker who initiated the Jordan Trail and has been developing sustainable adventure tourism in the region for the last few decades. He told Al-Monitor, "Now [there are] requests for Middle East trail development from the Emirates and Saudi Arabia, as well as, of course, Egypt. To put it simply, trails are in."
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