At this time of year, Egypt's hotels and cruise ships are packed with thousands of visitors eager to see the Great Pyramids or Luxor's famed Valley of the Kings. But a quietly growing eco-tourism movement is beginning to bring smaller groups to more out-of-the-way parts of Egypt, the places package tour operators don't visit.
At the remote Dakhla Oasis, new eco-lodges have sparked both hope and apprehension among local villagers.
Many villagers agree that Dakhla needs visitors to supplement the uncertain agriculture-based economy. But they also worry that large numbers of tourists will stress the fragile environment that has sustained life for thousands of years.
Nasser al-Hamoud, a blacksmith, works from inside an old mud-brick building on a twisting, narrow street in Al Qasr, a village at the northern end of the Dakhla Oasis. At his shop, a giant heaving bellows is the centerpiece of what resembles a medieval blacksmith's forge.
Hamoud has been smithing here for a quarter-century. He learned the trade from his father, and his own son is now pulling the chain that works the bellows, flaring the red-hot coals where the business end of a small scythe is taking shape.
Hamoud explains that business is uncertain these days. He says farm tools are his bread and butter, but lately, cheap imports from China have flooded the market. He scornfully holds up a thin, Chinese-made shovel blade, and then hefts the weightier, more costly hand-forged version.
Recently, however, Hamoud has begun to develop a sideline in selling large ornamental nails and rustic jewelry to tourists, who have started to visit in larger numbers. He has no idea if this is a blip or a trend.
Luxury, Mystery In The Desert
Deep in the western desert, Dakhla has been largely insulated from outside contact. To the south is Gilf Kebir, the "great barrier," 3,000 square miles of arid sandstone plateau. To the north is the Great Sand Sea — some 400 miles of wind-carved, shifting dunes stretching to the Siwa Oasis near Libya.
Amid the sweeping landscape, there is evidence of Egypt's tiny eco-tourism movement. Overlooking the mud-walled labyrinth of Al Qasr's old city, a new eco-lodge made of the same local mud is starting to attract environmentally aware visitors. The Desert Lodge is the project of businessman and desert lover Ahmed Moussa, who used local materials and craftsmen to construct it. The inn employs villagers from Al Qasr and is powered by hydro and solar sources.
Not far away is the Al Tarfa Desert Sanctuary, which bills itself as a "luxury eco-lodge." It offers well-heeled visitors such traditional amenities as a swimming pool and air conditioning. But Al Tarfa also used local construction materials and builders, and its staff is almost entirely local.
Owner Wael Abed is a longtime desert explorer who spent years following the routes of the early desert travelers, and then pushing beyond into uncharted areas. He says one lure of the desert is the sense that its mysteries are far from exhausted.
"Just an example, one of our trips just bumped into a rock shelter, and that turned to contain rock art, the richest in Africa — and that was as recent as 2002," he says.
Protecting The Oasis
Abed says there is still much to be discovered, with 11 archaeological missions working in Dakhla alone. Even though for now the sheer difficulty of getting to the area is keeping visitor numbers down, he says now is the time to be planning ahead to protect the oasis from being loved to death.
"But must we prepare for that? I very much believe in it, and this is why we are trying to get some support to do a master plan, and see what is the best possible way to minimize the negative impacts of tourism traffic into this area," Abed says.
As the late afternoon sun sends golden shafts through Al Qasr's old city, one of the village's most distinctive sounds emanates from a deserted building — hundreds of bats stirring themselves from daytime slumber and preparing to take off into the desert night.
With Egypt's industrial-scale tourism industry eyeing the oases as the next hot destination, it remains to be seen whether places like Dakhla can be opened up without being damaged forever.