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A fragile oasis uneasily welcomes tourist dollars

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As the putt-putt of motorbikes eclipses the clip-clop of donkey hooves, tourist guide Sayid Abu-Seif has decided that development in Siwa, his oasis home in western Egypt, is moving too far, too fast.

"It used to be quiet here," said Abu-Seif, 27. "You could hear the birds. Now it begins to sound like a city."

His unease is shared by other Siwans and outsiders concerned about the preservation of a fragile place out of time. A conundrum familiar to Shangri-Las the world over has arisen in this ancient island in the sand: What price change?

In the case of Siwa, where Cleopatra came to bathe, what danger does development hold for its clean air, abundant springs and languorous pace of life among the date groves?

The question is doubly vexing in a country where every livable space is exploited. From the once-empty shores of the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, Egypt is awash in development and urbanization. Sharm El-Sheikh, the "Red Sea Riviera," sprawls for miles. Other resorts have popped up from the Suez Canal down the coast toward Sudan.

Villas, apartment blocks and malls in Cairo, population 17 million, have breached the desert that frames the Nile River Valley. The port city of Alexandria marches inexorably westward, gobbling up beachfront and villages.

Egypt attracts 8 million tourists a year, according to the Tourism Ministry, and expects to double that by 2014. Tourist revenue makes up about 12% of the economy.

Siwa, inhabited for some 10,000 years, is a haven of legend. Alexander the Great consulted an oracle there and got himself declared son of a god. Ancient armies lost their way trying to reach it. Nomadic raiders forced the settled population to hide behind olive-wood gates in hard mud fortresses, a symbol of the oasis.

The bulwark of distance -- Siwa is 560 miles from Cairo, nine hours by car -- began to break down in 1986 when a paved highway from the Mediterranean opened a link to the world outside. Since then, the population has tripled to 22,000.

Siwa now attracts 15,000 travelers a year, not counting backpackers who shack up in private homes. About 70% are foreigners. The hard-sell souvenir hawking common to Cairo and Luxor has taken off. Chinese-made motorbikes that sell for as little as $500 literally run rings around the donkeys.

Investors bought desert land surrounding Siwa and several thousand acres within the oasis, said Ahmed Shawki, a manager for the Shali Project, a cultural-preservation organization funded partly by Italy's Foreign Ministry.

Tourist cash has translated into a splurge of construction. Omar Idris, who heads the Assn. of the Sons of Siwa, a conservation group, said there are now 770 hotel rooms in the oasis, which measures about 27 square miles. Many families, including Abu-Seif's, live in new brick houses.

"The mud houses are cooler, but we don't have to keep fixing it to stop it from falling down," he said.

"We know the tourists are coming and bringing money, and we don't want to turn them away," said Abu-Seif, who benefits from tourism as a safari guide. "We just do not want to be overrun."

The rest of his family is split. His brother, Sanussi, 21, also a desert guide, fears that land sales will hem in the oasis. "We are getting surrounded," he said.

For the youngest of the three, change can't come a minute too soon. "Siwa is better than before," said Muhammed, 17, who is in the army. "There is work."

The jobs attract migrants from the Nile valley, causing resentment among some native Siwans, who are largely of Berber stock. Nageh Shabib, a chef from Luxor who works at a hotel, said he suffers from discrimination. Siwans "don't like Arabs," he said.

A military airport about 25 miles northeast of the oasis is the next potential agent of change. President Hosni Mubarak's government is weighing whether to open it to civilian traffic. "This will be the key to Siwa's future," Shawki said.

Attitudes about the airport partly define the struggle over Siwa. Diaa Al-Liboudi, an Alexandrian who works at the Shali Resort on the outskirts of the oasis, wants it to expand. "The future is blossoming," he said.

Developer Mounir Neamatalla thinks progress is inevitable; it just has to respect limitations to prevent problems such as the water table dropping. The airport will convert Siwa into an inland Sharm El-Sheikh, he predicts.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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