MADELEINE BRAND, host:

We travel to Egypt for our next story. It's packed with tourists this time of year. They're disembarking from cruise ships, eager to see the Great Pyramids and other major attractions.

Far away from those sights, eco-tourism is quietly growing. Tourists can visit remote places, such as the Dakhla Oasis. New lodges there have sparked both hope and apprehension among local villagers.

NPR's Peter Kenyon visited and has this second of two reports on Egyptian eco-tourism.

PETER KENYON: As you turn a corner in the twisting narrow streets of Al Qasr, a village at the northern end of the Dakhla Oasis, a heavy rhythmic sigh seeps through an old mud brick building. Inside, a giant heaving bellows is the centerpiece of what can only be described as a Medieval blacksmith's forge.

Nasser al-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.

(Soundbite of metal hammering)

KENYON: Soon the glowing metal takes its place on the anvil, and the son goes at it hammer and tongs as Hamoud explains that business is uncertain these days.

Mr. NASSER AL-HAMOUD: (Foreign language spoken)

KENYON: 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.

Located 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, the Great Sand Sea � some 400 miles of wind-carved shifting dunes stretching to the Siwa Oasis near Libya.

But signs of Egypt's tiny ecotourism movement can be seen. 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, employs villagers from Al Qasr, and powers it using hydro and solar sources.

Not far away is the Al Tarfa Lodge, 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.

Mr. WAEL ABED (Owner, Al Tarfa Lodge): 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.

KENYON: 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 here is keeping visitor numbers down, he says now is the time to be planning ahead to protect the oasis from being loved to death.

Mr. ABED: 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.

KENYON: 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.

(Soundbite of bats)

KENYON: Many villagers here agree that Dakhla needs visitors to supplement the uncertain agriculture-based economy. But they worry that too many people will stress the fragile environment that has sustained life for thousands of years.

With Egypt's industrial-scale tourism industry already eyeing the oasis as the next hot destination, it remains to be seen if places like Dakhla can be opened up without being damaged forever.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

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