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A little bit of haven

El Gouna, Egypt's 'Venice on the Red Sea', has everything you could want from a holiday resort - except, that is, for authenticity. Words by Orlando Crowcroft

 

A perfect row of identical concrete villas lines the edge of a vast, grey sand pit, parallel to a dusty road. It must be 40 degrees Celsius outside and the sun burns through the back windows of the car, heating it like a greenhouse as the air-conditioner loses its battle to compensate.

Everywhere there are half-finished buildings; trucks with sad-looking, dirty labourers packed in the back; faded billboards advertising golf courses, palaces and hotels. It could be jet-lag but this feels like the end of the world.

And here, on the outskirts of El Gouna, on the coast of the Red Sea in southern Egypt, it kind of is. Just over 25 years ago, there was nothing on this arid coastal plain except the ramshackle metropolis of Hurghada, 25 kilometres to the south, and a nomadic Bedouin tribe. Now, with 17 hotels, hundreds of restaurants, man-made lagoons and a permanent population of 25,000, El Gouna has become "Venice on the Red Sea" - according to the press release, at least. I've never been to Venice, but I would wager El Gouna has a little way to go.

Such claims of Italian sophistication are being conveyed to me on a whistle-stop tour of the town and its outskirts by a member of El Gouna's marketing regiment, sent to "orientate" us after our arrival at Hurghada's sparse, ramshackle airport. The origins of the place have been well rehearsed: it was developed by Egyptian construction giant Orascom Development, as the pet project of Samih Sawiris, chairman of a group subsidiary. Sawiris was looking for "the most beautiful spot on the Red Sea" on which to build a house for himself (or so the story goes - the idea of developing a tourist resort was perhaps never far from his mind) and found it in this relatively lush pocket of an arid region. Sawiris dug out the network of "lagoons" that give El Gouna its name, and built two marinas and the town.

The rest is history - or, at least, half-finished history; El Gouna remains starkly incomplete.

Perhaps the scorching sun has done something to my mind, but to me the whole story sounds more like the plot of a dystopian novel. The Orascom Group owns everything: all 17 hotels - including a Mövenpick and a Sheraton - all the restaurants, the sports venues and the football team. From street-sweeper to chief executive, everyone at work here is employed by Orascom. Even if you buy a house in Sabina, Um Jamar or one of the other housing projects, you don't actually own it: you lease it from Orascom. From the horrendously overpriced internet service to the phone network, Orascom is the daddy.

And the town is not really Egypt, as the expatriates who have moved here (entrepreneurs, artists, environmentalists and sports enthusiasts, according to the promo material) - with their sunburnt bellies and wide-rimmed shades - are keen to point out. "You may as well be in Portugal," I overhear one say.

It's a fair point, and the two main areas of the town demonstrate it well. Downtown and the Marina, with their myriad cookie-cutter restaurants and bars, mostly specialise in non-descript and oddly matched international food - one, for example, specialising in Italian and Tex Mex, another with a dubious Arabic and American menu.

"Is there an Egyptian restaurant?"

"Uh, I think there might be one," answers our guide, bemused, as we order another pizza/nachos/salad combo, but doesn't elaborate.

Three days in, and El Gouna starts to feel an awful lot like Seahaven, Jim Carrey's hometown in the movie The Truman Show, in which he is unaware that he is living on the constructed set of a reality-television show. But maybe it's that flatness, even sterility, that attracts many of the guests to come and the expatriates to stay. The resort has become famous for kite surfing, with the winds and shallow waters of the Red Sea perfect for the sport; but many of the guests just come to sit on the beach, eat out at the same-same restaurants and enjoy the sun. Like its competitors in Spain, Tunisia, Morocco and Greece, El Gouna is a place to which Europeans come to get away from it all.

And, to be fair, it serves its purpose. By the time I leave El Gouna there will have been a riot in Cairo and a missile attack in Libya, which borders Egypt to the west, but I will board my flight out of the country oblivious to either event.

The only Egyptian thing about El Gouna is the man-datory trip to the Bedouin camp in the desert outside town. The white-robed men who run the camp are the original owners of the land beneath El Gouna, but are now content to serve drinks and put on belly-dancing shows for tourists, brought out by the resort's major hotels, with whom they sit around a fire, smoking and drinking coffee.

At passport control in Cairo, an officer with a bushy moustache and thick black hair hustles us through passport control into the arrivals hall, only for another airport staff member to muscle us back through immigration and into the connecting-flight line. Nobody seems to know what's going on.

The man at the desk takes our passports with a smile, before giving each of us back someone else's documents. Seven boarding-pass checks stand between us and our flight and I'm pretty sure half of those checking don't work for the airline.

For once, though, I am grinning. This is Egypt, and I missed it during my stay in El Gouna.

 

 

Getting there: Qatar Airways (qatarairways.com/hk) flies from Hong Kong to Doha and from there to Cairo. Egypt Air (egyptair.com) operates daily flights from Cairo to Hurghada.

 

 

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A little bit of haven

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