You probably came across this article because you were looking for a means to fight a burgeoning fall depression. Or else, your wanderlust has taken you here. Either way: You are at the right place! Today, I’ll present an absolutely effective cure to both wanderlust and depression: An insider’s tip for a spontaneous vacation. A colleague of mine asked me for that kind of tip lately. He wanted to know the best place for a spontaneous trip – within short distance from Germany, with a guarantee of sunshine and with the possibility to relax for a couple of days and maybe do some fun sports. So I told him about El Gouna, a small Red Sea town in Egypt. And now I’ll share my story with you.
To make it plain: I wouldn’t recommend El Gouna if I didn’t like the place. But I have to warn you: El Gouna is artificial. El Gouna is a city from a glossy travel brochure, and it has not developed naturally. It is 25 years old and you simply wouldn’t expect a city like El Gouna here. Next to the highway that connects Hurghada with Kairo. In the midst of the desert, El Gouna is an oasis. Surrounded by an environment that is hostile to life. Heat, sand, rocks, plastic waste that gets entangled to both sides of the road in fences and in the undergrowth. Whoever leaves the boundaries of the oasis finds himself in another world, aloof from habitable territory.
Within these boundaries is a settlement. Rich Egyptians, rich Europeans and those who work in the hotels share this living space with tourists. El Gouna counts around 22.000 inhabitants at the moment. The number has doubled in the last five years. The streets are neat and clean, much cleaner than in any other city. Because nobody would ever throw their garbage on the floor, Husain explains. He works as a receptionist in a luxury hotel. I want to know if El Gouna is a nice place to work. Husain nods. I want to believe him.
Of palm trees that are cellular radio masts
Villas and hotels wind along an installed lagoon system – in the city center, every house is connected to the water. Everywhere, you have the possibility to take a bath in fresh, turquoise sea water or relax on a sandy beach beneath palm trees. This feels all natural, and paradisiacal. Still: Only one of the lagoons has always been there.
From the sea of palm trees that border El Gouna’s lagoons, two jut out. They are some meters higher than the others. Instead of roots they have a concrete baseplate. These palm trees are no palm trees. They are cellular radio masts, disguised as trees. An illusion of nature. You have to look closely to spot the fake.
El Gouna is a solid, well-thought-out concept that doesn’t only focus on tourism but also on housing development and sustainability.
El Gouna is the project of one entrepreneur. The Egyptian businessman Samin Sawiris came to the Red Sea in 1989 to buy land and establish a settlement. In a matter of years, a small town with an elaborate infrastructure was developed. El Gouna is a solid, well-thought-out concept that doesn’t only focus on tourism and fast bucks but also on housing development and sustainability. Garbage gets sorted and recycled. Waste water is collected and purified. The facilities in which these processes take place are state of the art. Every single hotel classifies for the Green Globe Award and in August 2014 El Gouna was awarded the Global Green City Award as the first city in Africa and the Arabian World. The award is allocated by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP).
But then again, the luscious green of watered golf courses raise my doubts. Is this sustainable? The green area of one single golf course needs around three billion liters of water per day. Which is around the same amount that a golf course in Northern Europe needs in six months. Still people explain to me that this is not a crime against the environment. The grass that grows in El Gouna is from a special culture – one that can be watered with filtered wastewater and loves the heat. Thus, playing golf is – comparatively – eco-friendly. And maybe, the better question is: Do we really have to play golf in the desert?
The more so as El Gouna actually is a paradise for active vacationers. One of the biggest kite surfing schools in Egypt resides here. Constant winds between ten and 25 knots make for ideal conditions for beginners and pros. The Red Sea is renowned for its diving spots and coral reefs near the shore welcome scuba divers. Parasailing, water ski and paintball help to fight vacation boredom. If you are looking for action, El Gouna is your dream factory.
A brewery in the midst of the desert
If you are looking for culture, El Gouna is not for you, whatsoever. The Sphinx and the Pyramids are located in 400 kilometers distance. Although you can buy day tours to Kairo, El Gouna is not the right starting point for expeditions into the Old Egypt. At least there’s a video animation and an online version of the library of Alexandria in the public library that informs the visitor about Ramses, Tut-Anch-Amun and Nofretete.
Last but not least, El Gouna also is a place for the beer lovers. Yes, there’s a brewery in the midst of the desert! The El Gouna Beverage Company belongs to the Heineken group and resides here – although alcohol is banned in Islam. But of course, the state sells brewing and distillery licenses. Those for beer are comparably cheap. Which is a reason why a lot of stout is brewed here… Naturally, there are tours and beer tastings.