Background

Since the beginning of civilization, the Sinai has been one of the most important crossroads to human expansion. Millennia ago, the Pharaohs created a path through the peninsula connecting Egypt to Jerusalem. For the Pharaohs, Sinai served as an easily protected barrier allowing ancient Egypt to blossom unthreatened. Later in the third century BC, it was the stage for the Israelites' exodus out of Egypt. The Romans and Nabateans used an east-west desert route that later became the
Darb El-Hajj
, or the pilgrim's way, to Mecca. In modern times, Sinai's role as a crossroads grew even more pronounced with the completion of the Suez Canal. The strategic significance of this desert wedge and the many people that lay claim to it still yield clashes in the region, most recently in a wave of terrorist attacks by Islamist groups targeting foreign tourists. A series of bombs in Taba in 2004 killed 34 people, then horrific blasts in Sharm El-Sheikh in July 2005 claimed 89 lives, mainly Egyptian, to become the deadliest terrorist attack in the county's history. Dahab witnessed a further terror attack in 2006. Not surprisingly, a security crackdown ensued - but although tourist numbers decreased dramatically for a time, foreigners are now flocking back to Sharm El-Sheikh and development continues at a furious pace. It is the coastline north of Dahab, in the past lively with Israeli backpackers, that has really suffered and many of the pristine beaches now lie empty but for sagging palm-reed huts.

While most backpackers and more rugged travellers journey overland from Cairo or Israel, or by ship from Hurghada or Jordan, many now fly to Sinai direct via Sharm El-Sheikh airport. And although tourism is generating jobs and bringing in lots of foreign currency, the hasty pace of development in Sinai is of great concern to many. Since the peninsula was returned to Egypt in the early 1980s, South Sinai alone has seen the onslaught of almost 25,000 hotel rooms. The waste of perpetual construction coupled with the overload of tourists and careless divers is resulting in the rapid deterioration of Sinai's main tourist asset: the rich life of the surrounding seas. Add to this the government's North Sinai Agricultural Development Project - a multibillion dollar effort intending to relocate three million Nile Valley residents by 2017. Key to the project is the building of the Salaam canal, a huge and almost finished undertaking that will transport recycled waste water and Nile water through the north of Sinai. How it will impact on the enchantment of Sinai and its Bedouin inhabitants has yet to be determined.

Warning

Never allow your driver to stray off the tracks in the desert because in the National Parks it is illegal and because many areas still have mines. Maps of mined areas are unreliable, mines are moved in flood waters and remain hidden. This is a general warning for all desert-border areas of Egypt and the Western Desert but is especially pertinent to Sinai.

Sinai's Protected Areas

With the Red Sea surpassing the antiquities as Egypt's prime tourist attraction, authorities
are taking measures to protect the asset that is at the heart of the industry. This protection has taken the form of a network of protected areas along the coast from
Ras Mohammed National Park
,
Nabq Managed Resource Protected Area
,
Ras Abu Galum Managed Resource Protected Area
to the
Taba Managed Resource Protected Area
, and
St Catherine's National Park
, which covers a huge swathe of the southern mountains. With more and more tourists and developments keen to witness the unspeakable beauty of this land, the presence and sustainability of the National Parks is increasingly essential to the region's survival.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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