“That's not Egypt! It feels very artificial and European!” people had told us about El Gouna. We went there to find out for ourselves:
Pastel-coloured houses surround the small marina; the outdoor tables of several cafés and restaurants attract some strolling tourists. Several of the picturesque houses are hotels, others are fashionable shops. Only a short walk away there is another marina. A small orange-painted art workshop is advertising pottery and art courses, and next to yet another lagoon some Nubian inspired houses surround a garden and pool. What a pleasant little village – for once in Egypt, there are no ugly electricity lines, air-con boxes and concrete building sins. All the houses seem to belong here, they are all well-designed and maintained.
The whole village is built from scratch in the desert for people who love sunshine, lagoons, marinas and cafés. And all the houses are built or supervised by the same company, Orascom Development. All the hotels belong to Orascom and more than half of them are managed by them. The real estate company bought the plot from the Egyptian government and started building in the 1990s.
Ghada, the guest relations manager, leads us around town. “The company stipulates exactly what kind of buildings are permitted,” she explains. You even need a special permit to put up a satellite dish. All the houses have free cable TV anyway, so there's not much demand for satellite dishes. And it has to be fixed somewhere at the back of the house.”
While El Gouna is completely purpose-built, it is not only a tourist village. El Gouna has a sizeable resident community of people working here, not only in the tourist business. Ghada points to a building in the distance: „And that is the church.“ Probably she means the mosque, Natascha figures, since many Egyptians use both words interchangeably when they talk to foreigners. It turns out, however, that it is indeed the church: A majority of the Egyptian staff in El Gouna are Copts (but there is also a smaller mosque in a different town quarter). We pass a campus of the Technical University of Berlin, next to one of the American University Cairo and the “Palace of Knowledge”, an online-library with access to the Alexandria library.
“Have you seen the water treatment plant with the reverse osmosis tanks?”, the hotel manager asks us. Ghada seems relieved someone else asked, because she can never remember the technical term “reverse osmosis”. We can, because we have just visited the water treatment system in Soma Bay, a very similar but quieter resort. And no, we don't need to see another group of water tanks, however developed the desalination system. Yet we do wonder about the huge golf course next to the Steigenberger Hotel. Isn't it a waste of precious fresh water to have such expanses of green in the middle of the desert? But Ghada insists that the reused water from the 17 hotels and the 15,000 resident population is sufficient for all irrigation needs. Thus, El Gouna has a double water circuit – one for the freshly desalinated water, and a second one for irrigation.
Our conclusion about El Gouna: It certainly has this Disney-like feel about it, but then again, many people pay a lot of money for a few days in Disneyland. El Gouna is perhaps a better choice. It is environmentally friendly, the staff is treated and paid at certain standards, the town has good restaurants and nice hotels (and a good climate). And for the experience of a (somewhat more) Egyptian town visitors can take the minibus to Hurghada's El Dahar quarter for 10 EGP.
El Gouna Homepage: http://www.elgouna.com