Half-Finished Buildings A Symbol Of Forgotten Promise In Egypt

Marsa Alam is a region of more than 100 miles of beautiful coastlines, coral reefs and diving spots. But the city itself is a microcosm of neglect in Egypt since the revolution. It is a ghost town of unfinished construction and promised infrastructure that still doesn't exist. There is no power grid, no water so local hotels and resorts must provide their own generators and water source. And a diesel crisis has hit business hard. When there is no fuel, tour operators can't power their boats or generators and can't take advantage of the few tourists who visit the area.

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And not far from Luxor, on the coast of the Red Sea, is another place with great potential to attract tourists. It's called Marsa Alam. It has miles and miles of beautiful coastline, barrier coral reefs and diving spots. The town started to boom after its airport opened in 2001, but now it's an array of half-finished buildings and unfulfilled promises.

As we hear from NPR's Leila Fadel, Marsa Alam is a microcosm of the neglect that has occurred across much of Egypt since the uprising more than two years ago.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Ibrahim el Toukhy is a 41-year-old, tan, beach-obsessed Cairene with big plans for his little guesthouse. He started building the Rihana guesthouse in Marsa Alam about seven years ago, with a promise from the local council that the town, about 460 miles from Cairo, would be built into a tourist destination, with a promenade on the seafront and a marina along with restaurants and shops for the foreigners who would stay at nearby resorts.

But since the 2011 uprising, everything has stalled.

IBRAHIM EL TOUKHY: It's like a haunted city.

FADEL: Toukhy spoke to us in the shared kitchen of his guesthouse. The building has five rooms, with views of the sea. But he has only one guest, a Dane who paid less than $100 for a roundtrip ticket from Copenhagen to Marsa Alam.

Outside, the promenade is dead, not a person walking by. All around Toukhy's guesthouse are ugly half-constructed brick buildings. And across the road, there's a dirt lot that was supposed to be a park.

TOUKHY: It has to do with the mind because, people now, you know, they say, OK, we're not going to put money in this city anymore, in this situation we are in. You know, if I have 100 pounds, I would rather put it in the bank rather than put it in something which has something to do with tourism.

FADEL: Downstairs at the Rihana guesthouse, Ibrahim shows us empty shops on the ground floor.

TOUKHY: These are the shops. They could be rented, like HEPCA, for instance. And I'm planning to do like a little restaurant or something for the guests.

FADEL: Other than Toukhy's office, the only occupied space belongs to an environmental group called HEPCA that works on preserving the region's coral reefs and marine life. He can't rent out the other spaces.

TOUKHY: No, nobody is interested. Everybody who comes here says, where, where the people? Which is true, where are the people?

FADEL: And yet, there are some visitors here from around the world coming to dive with sea turtles and dolphins. The head of the city council, Ismail Salama, says tourists are still coming even though Egypt is unstable now.

ISMAIL SALAMA: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: There is fear when it comes to investors, he says. The stalling of construction is worrisome, but the government will turn it around, he says. But when asked how, Salama doesn't have a ready answer.

The head of Egypt's tourism federation, Elhamy Elzayat, says the greatest threat to Marsa Alam now is the diesel crisis.

ELHAMY ELZAYAT: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: There's no gas pipeline that runs through the area, and it is not linked to the nation's power grid, he says. So for the time being, Marsa Alam is almost totally dependent on shipments of diesel fuel to run the generators at the local hotels as well as the region's water purification plants. But the cash-strapped Egyptian government can barely afford to purchase petroleum products these days.

We drive to a beautiful beach south of the city. On the road, we pass long lines of trucks, tour busses and cars at gas stations. Sometimes days go by with no diesel shipments.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: A few miles away, Alaa el-Din Hassan looks on as European customers rinse off their diving suits. His business isn't doing badly, but it's not good either, he says. Without diesel, he can't fuel the boats he uses to take the tourists out to diving sites. Twice, he's had to shut down even though he had customers.

ALAA EL-DIN HASSAN: Marsa Alam is becoming the first destination now in Egypt for divers because of the beauty of the sea and the marine life in the Red Sea.

FADEL: And the government, he says, should be doing more to promote the region.

Leila Fadel, NPR News.

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