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26 October 2007

DAHAB: From Primitive to Prosperous!

DAHAB: From Primitive to Prosperous!

by Hoda Nassef

Dahab is named after it gleaming golden sand beaches. It is one of the most beautiful beaches on the Red Sea coast, in the Gulf of Aqaba. Dahab is located 81 km north of Sharm El-Sheikh. Famed as one of the best places in the world for windsurfing because of its geographical structure, Dahab is the perfect place for professional windsurfers, and beginners as well. It is also well known for its diving sites, because of its clear waters, coral reefs and colourful marine life.

Not only is Dahab famed for its unrivaled diving sites throughout the world, but also unrivalled in Sinai and worldwide, are the pristine diving sites accessible only by camels, in which Dahab Bedouin camps devote themselves to camel diving safaris. Nature also affords the campers to go hiking in the colourful hills long the Red Sea coast.

Dahab does not cover a very large area. If you walk through Dahab, you will notice all the main hotels, such as Hilton Dahab Resort, Swiss Inn Resort, Ganet Sinai Hotel, and Novotel (Accor) Dahab Carola Hotel, all situated on the same lagoon, except for Helnan Dahab Hotel, which is located only 800 meters away. There is also one main shopping and entertainment road.

Due to its pristine Bedouin valleys and beaches, “eco-tourism” has materialized in Dahab, with a couple of “ecolodges” already established. Apart from its five and four-star hotels, tourists and travelers seeking low-budget vacations prefer Dahab because of its choice of 3-star hotels, inexpensive cafés, restaurants, and Bedouin villages along its shores. Those who prefer to go ‘back to nature’ and lodge in camps – go to Dahab.

From back-packers, to luxury seekers – with all types of accommodation to suit them, ranging from camps, to 2/3-star inns, cottages, 4-star hotels, and a couple of 5-star beach resorts, in Dahab, there is something for everyone, every budget, and every taste.

Dahab has changed a lot during the past twenty years, and accommodations ranging from Bedouin camps to luxury hotels, have sprung up, bringing with it an influx of tourists, as well as permanent residents living alongside the native Bedouins. Offshore, located also is a newly established low-cost government housing development (the Mubarak Housing Development for Youth) for workers and new residents seeking low-budget accommodation. Some Bedouin families are also hoping to move to these units.

To delve in the background history for more insight on this beautiful remote seashore town, I decided to visit Dahab and talk to some residents there. When I enquired about the hotel developers and investors in Dahab, I was told that at first the real estate investors were afraid of competition from other hotels, but soon realized that most people who come to Dahab, know exactly where they want to stay, and are faithful clienteles to their own particular choices. Now that there are more than one international chain hotel, the investors and hotel general managers work together, instead of against each other, in order to make Dahab as one of the main tourist destinations, thereby ensuring that Dahab maintains a permanent landmark on the map in the tourism and hospitality business.

Some chain hotels apply a great incentive, which allows their guests to switch back and forth between the same chains, in different locations. For example, if a guest is staying at a specific chain hotel in Sharm El-Sheikh, the same guest can leave Sharm, commute to Dahab, and stay there a few days, free of charge. The guest is guaranteed to find the same room upon his/her return to the previous accommodation. These package deals often occur in the Sinai hotels, even during the tourist peak season, because most of the guests who come to Sinai in the first place, have more or less the same interests in water sports, such as diving, sailing and windsurfing.

Windsurfing is the main water sport feature in Dahab. Dahab has been internationally acclaimed as the best place in the world for windsurfing. It is great for beginners, because the wind is mild the morning hours, and they can practice in the shallow smooth waters near the shore. The professionals also enjoy windsurfing, starting at noon further away from the shores of the bay, because the winds are stronger and constant ninety-eight per cent throughout the whole year. As for the daredevils who seek speed, there are waves that can reach up to three meters high around and beyond the reefs in the open bay.

Apart from windsurfing as its main attraction, Dahab differs from Sharm El Sheikh, in that it is relatively much less expensive, and from Hurghada, in that it still retains its rustic nature and calm atmosphere. Other activities include desert safaris with the Bedouin tribes, and discovering unknown oases with their virgin springs, waterfalls, and palm trees.

Many of the smaller 3-star hotels in the past were tent camps or diving centers, then gradually evolved into more modern cottages. As more tourists arrived, the dive centers expanded by annexing rooms to accommodate them. Gradually, they were renovated and turned into hotels with all the necessary comforts. Some of the original camps can still be found in Dahab, and the existing huts are made of natural material, such as straw, palm leaves and bamboo branches. Dahab has about 100 different camps to choose from, with various levels of quality. However, more concrete structures have materialized, while still retaining a rustic architectural style, and withholding its basic elements.

Fishing for all species of seafood, especially lobsters, was one of the main livelihoods of the Bedouin tribes, but due to the environment protection rules, it has become restricted to a minimum. Now, the Bedouins sustain themselves by working in the tourism industry, as guides, safari caravans, and craftsmen. On the other hand, the tourism industry has done them some good, as more vegetables, plants and fruit is cultivated there now.

Twenty years ago, electricity, sewage network, water treatment plants and agriculture didn’t exist in Dahab. After discovering Dahab as a great tourist spot, housing complexes have been built for the Bedouins, as well as schools, clinics, shops, and the tourist resorts. Nowadays, tourists come directly to Dahab, from all over the world, whereas once they used to come only from Sharm El-Sheikh, Taba and Jordan, stay a couple of weeks at the most, in tents or straw huts, or even sleep in the open air, dive and swim during the day, then go back home, or to other Sinai resorts.

What worries most of the native Bedouins, are the new towns being constructed where the building structures may hide the mountains. Hotel managers are equally worried with the new constructions going on. If construction is not carefully planned, the hills will be blocked from view. However, another more vital problem is the accumulation of garbage, and the problems they have had up till the recent past of collecting and recycling them. Modernization should be well planned to include environment awareness and protection, and not a means of destroying a pristine and beautiful seacoast.

The Bedouins are changing now, and education is the goal of the new generation. There are six primary schools in Dahab. For those who wish to continue their education up till high school, they can continue in El-Torr, the capital of Sinai. As yet, there are no universities there. Educated or not, all agree to one major issue: they don’t want Dahab to turn into another ‘civilized’ city, and spoil the natural environment.

I asked around with the typical question, as to why was Dahab named was named as such, (‘dahab’ translated means “gold”), and was surprised by the answer of one Bedouin, “Because the water lights up in golden sparks”. “Why?” I asked, “Is it because of the phosphor?” To my delight, the answer was: “No, because of small golden fish which light up at night.” How wonderful! I stayed on till the next morning, just to observe this marvelous treat of nature.

In Dahab, there is a chance for everyone to have a vacation, no matter what his or her income is. For example, the average room rate, bed and breakfast, at camps like the Crazy Camel, costs L.E. 40 per room, for Egyptian and foreigner guests alike. At 3-star inns and diving centers, like the Nesima Hotel, the average double room rate is L.E. 120 per person, bed and breakfast, for Egyptians, and $U.S.45 for foreign guests. The Novotel Dahab, a 4-star hotel, has an average double room rate, bed and breakfast, of L.E. 220 for Egyptians, and about $U.S.116 for foreigners. The Hilton Dahab Resort has an average double room rate, bed and breakfast per person (depending on the tourist season) of L.E.220 to L.E.280 for Egyptian guests, and $U.S. 130 for foreign guests. The prices may have fluctuated a bit, since my last visit was almost two years ago. But, unlike what most may expect, now, after the 9/11 horror, the prices may have reduced, rather than increased, to encourage tourism.

Where it was once only an unknown primitive Bedouin village, Dahab is now a beautiful thriving retreat for Egyptian vacationers and foreign tourists. There is something there for everyone. If you pay a visit and re-discover it for yourself, I assure you, you will not want to leave!

H.N.

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