SHARM EL SHEIKH, EGYPT — Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt--Barely 10 years after bitterly disputed Sinai was returned to Egypt in exchange for the present cool peace with Israel, the Red Sea coast, still heavily guarded by Egyptian and multinational forces, has quietly become one of the world's fastest growing resorts.
The posh boardwalks of Naama Bay and the flashing neon lights of the Cactus Disco (bragging the largest dance floor in Egypt) seem strangely incongruous with the rugged desolation of the ++ Sinai mountains that dominate the desert landscape and the occasional signs warning foreigners not to stray from the main roads.
Yet here on the southern tip of Sinai, where the Gulf of Aqaba and the Gulf of Suez merge with the Red Sea, the soft, white domes of Mediterranean-style resorts are popping up like mushrooms out of the coastal desert wilderness.
This is a coast lined with coral of all shades resembling huge fans or small forests, where bright yellow clown fish play among the purple-tipped anemone.
A blue spotted ray glides along the ocean bottom toward a
convention of eels sticking out of the sand like a field of wild grass. A giant sea turtle paddles gracefully into the distance.
In the evening, a small group of divers follow the slow gyrations of an octopus as it slithers around the reef, its color and texture changing from rough to smooth, red to purple to brown.
These are reefs bejeweled with hundreds of varieties of tropical fish, many of which are found only in the Red Sea. The remarkable underwater scenery and world-class beach resort have only recently gained fame in Europe, and in America are known only to avid divers.
Word is spreading fast, though, and already some 100,000 tourists a year flock to the chic little oasis on the edge of one of the world's harshest deserts, whose Bedouin inhabitants have witnessed three wars in the last 40 years.
"People thought I was crazy when I proposed a five-star resort here, but I knew it would be a hit. This is the closest destination to Europe with sunshine guaranteed all year around, and the underwater landscape is unparalleled," said Claude Chenais, general manager of the two Hilton hotels here. Constructed only five years ago, the Fayrouz Hilton was one of the first big resort hotels in Naama Bay.
At first wary of encouraging tourism in what is still considered a security zone, even Egyptian government officials seem upbeat about the new developments in Sharm el Sheikh.
"Sure, it's a security zone, but nobody thinks of it that way any more. It's Egypt's top tourist attraction after the pyramids and the other pharaonic monuments, and it's the most rapidly growing tourism zone in the region," said Samir Sadek, chief adviser of the newly created Tourism Development Unit, an advisory branch of the Ministry of Tourism.
Considering the harsh environment, the tourism to Sharm el Sheikh is as surprising as it is successful. Because the area has no natural sources of drinking water, it was considered uninhabitable until 1967, when the Israelis set up a small military base on the site. Until 10 years ago sands swept along a pristine coastline here, and the coral reefs, now considered among the most remarkable in the world, were virtually unknown.
Times have changed
Things have changed completely since then. Now plenty of drinking water is piped in from the Nile, and desalination and power plants are beginning to appear. Jet-setting Europeans, demanding the luxuries of home like cable television and gourmet dining, pour into the exclusive resort area to snorkel and dive among the stunning array of brilliant tropical fish and breathtaking underwater landscapes.
Whereas four years ago a small, noisy plane made two charter flights a week from Cairo to Sharm el Sheikh, some of the world's most modern planes now fly in direct from Zurich, Munich, Vienna, Rome and other major European hubs.
There are 10 major hotels here, and about 10 more under construction. Five more dive centers are planned for Sharm el Sheikh, and every year more hotels and dive centers spring up. There are already nearly 4,000 rooms in Sharm, up from 740 in 1988, and occupancy at most of the hotels ranges from 70 percent in the off-season to overbooking.
"The transformation is nothing short of amazing," said Rolf Schmidt, manager of Sinai Divers, one of the most popular dive clubs here. Mr. Schmidt, a German who has lived here longer than just about anyone else in the community, moved to Sinai in 1973. At that time fewer than 900 people, nearly all of whom worked for the Israeli army, lived in Sharm el Sheikh. Now there are about 4,000 inhabitants here.
The tourist boom started in the mid-'80s, when the Egyptian government formed the South Sinai Hotel and Dive Co. The company built several hotels along the coast of Aqaba, all of which are still in operation. It was this company that invited several experienced European diving entrepreneurs to Sinai after the signing of the Camp David accords to manage the dive shops and hotels in the new tourism area.
Encouragement like that is hardly needed these days. In the peak season -- Christmas -- Mr. Schmidt said about 600 divers per week come to his center for gear, dive guides, lessons and boats.
Perils on the horizon
Yet, as environmentalists and ecologists contemplate the future of one of the world's last unspoiled marine sanctuaries and the numbers of tourists who come to admire it, they see perils on the horizon.
Because of warnings from concerned marine specialists, the Egyptian government and the hoteliers betting their fortunes on the long-term success of the resort area are working almost as doggedly to protect the fragile underwater environment as they are to meet the growing demand for more big resorts here.
The foundation of a special unit two years ago charged with planning all investment and development along the coastline running from Taba (on the Israeli border) to Ras Mohamed (the southern tip of Sinai) is a testimony to the high priority Egypt is now giving to the careful development of South Sinai.
But feelings are mixed as to future prospects of the area, and the people who have lived in Sharm before the boom are skeptical about how long the coastal paradise will endure the quick pace of development.
"Sure it's good here. Business is booming like mad. But although this is great news now, it's bad news in the long run," Mr. Schmidt said. "If the tourist boom destroys the only resource we have -- marine life -- in a decade no one will want to come here
anymore. Look at Italy and Spain. They used to be paradise, and now they are a disaster because of the pollution."
Hisham Ramez, manager of the Tiran Dive Center, showed similar concern when asked about the fast pace of development in the area.
"We need to be very, very careful. It takes about three years for coral to grow one centimeter, and if you touch it, you kill it. Our dive center alone sends out two or three boats a day. That's over 30 divers. Sometimes I see close to 200 divers at a site. What are the chances that with 200 divers nobody will break the coral or scare away the marine life?"
But environmentalists assigned to the task of managing the marine wonderland say the picture is not so grim. According to Michael Pearson, a marine biologist and manager of the national park here, diver damage to the reefs is minimal, and strong measures have been taken to keep it that way.
The staff of Ras Mohamed, Egypt's first national park (established in 1983), has installed permanent anchors allowing dive boats to moor without harming the sea bottom, and a limit of two boats per mooring controls the number of divers in any one site. Underwater rangers have begun patrolling the coast to ensure that divers respect the fragile marine environment, and dive clubs not obeying regulations regarding ecologically sound practices are banned from operating in the sanctuary.
Another positive sign is that development projects have been limited to the environmental capacity of the area. Original five-year projects of 12,000 rooms in the area have been reduced to 9,000 rooms, and 48 percent of the Aqaba coastline is being kept intact and carefully managed.
The unprecedented efforts seem to be paying off. Gazelle and ibex are returning to the Ras Mohamed area for the first time since the end of the war, and authorities say that so far developers in the area have been cooperative in adopting environmentally sound practices.
The crunch will come in a few years when development starts to push the capacity of Sharm el Sheikh to its limit and keeping the ecological rules begins to dig into the potential profits of the resort's hoteliers.
Transforming the Red Sea coast from military zone to booming tourism sector was surprisingly easy. If current management of the area can continue keeping development in check, Egypt stands to set an important example for similar areas around the world.
IF YOU GO . . .
Language: Nearly everyone speaks English, and all dive clubs offer English-language dive instruction. Four or five days are required to be certified as an open-water diver.
Reservations: Reservations for hotels, boats and dive courses should be made in advance.
Best season: A visit in autumn or spring is suggested to avoid the crowds common in winter and the prohibitive temperatures of summer, although underwater visibility is normally best in summer months. But because of the warm water, diving and snorkeling are possible year-round. Water temperatures range from mid-80s in summer to upper 60s in winter.
Day trips: Possible day trips from Sharm el Sheikh include: Saint Catherine's Monastery, featuring a temple on the site of the biblical burning bush and icons dating to the seventh century; Mount Sinai, where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments, and the neighboring coastal resort areas of Nuweiba and Dahab, where prices tend to be slightly lower and accommodations less luxurious than in Sharm el Sheikh. Israel is a day's drive from Sharm el Sheikh, and buses and planes from Sharm el Sheikh to Jerusalem are frequent.
Desert safaris: Safaris (by camel or four-wheel drive) into the scenic Sinai mountains can also be arranged from many hotels in Sharm el Sheikh.
Currency: The hotels accept traveler's checks in dollars, and credit cards are almost universally accepted.
Visas: Visitors flying to Sharm el Sheikh without passing through Cairo are advised to make sure their visa permits entry into the mainland of Egypt. Admission to Ras Mohamed National Park, which features some of the area's finest underwater landscapes, is prohibited to those with Sinai-only visas.
Hotels: In Sharm el Sheikh, hotels include the following:
* Fayrouz Hilton: Call 50-01-40 or 60-01-41. Five-star hotel facing the harbor and featuring a pool overlooking the harbor. Satellite television is available. The hotel has its own dive center.
* Ghazala Hotel: Call 60-01-50 or 60-01-51. Three-star hotel. Faces harbor. No pool. No satellite television.
* Hilton Residence: Call 60-01-67 or 60-01-68. Five-star hotel with large swimming pool. Suites with kitchen facilities are available.
* Marina Sharm: Call 60-01-70 or 60-01-71. One-star hotel. The oldest hotel in Sharm el Sheikh and the only Israeli-built hotel. Faces the harbor, but is about a 15-minute walk from the main boardwalk.
* Movenpick: Call 60-01-00; 60-01-20; 60-01-25. Five-star hotel. Faces the harbor and has a large swimming pool surrounded by expansive marble walkways. Especially known for great homemade ice-cream and a breakfast buffet featuring foods imported from Switzerland. The hotel has its own dive center.
* Sanafir: Call 60-01-97. Two-star hotel. A Mediterranean-style hotel with beautiful arched doorways and domed roofs, a five-minute walk from the beach. In the evening, the atmosphere bohemian and features live music around a bonfire and a cafe under Bedouin tents.
Getting in touch: The country code for calls to Egypt is 20. Thcity code for Sharm el Sheikh is 062. Letters can be addressed to the hotel, followed by Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt.