El Alamein's New Battle ...to Turn into the Egyptian Algarve; in 1942 It Witnessed an Epic Military Clash. Now, Says John Carter, the Western Desert Is Fighting to Lure an Army of Tourists, REVIEW

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), May 8, 2005 | Go to article overview

El Alamein's New Battle ...to Turn into the Egyptian Algarve; in 1942 It Witnessed an Epic Military Clash. Now, Says John Carter, the Western Desert Is Fighting to Lure an Army of Tourists, REVIEW


Byline: JOHN CARTER

MY EMOTIONS were in turmoil as we walked from the tour bus to the Commonwealth War Cemetery at El Alamein. We weren't in Egypt's Western Desert as pilgrims to the battleground of a distant war, but as holidaymakers enjoying the Mediterranean beaches, the April sunshine and the comfort of a five-star hotel.

El Alamein's place in military history should have been irrelevant.

But it can't be. Though none of us had chosen the destination because of its past, many guests at the newly-opened Movenpick Hotel took the half-day excursion to the cemeteries and Second World War museum. What we saw will be described in due course. What must be explained first is why El Alamein is as strategically important today as it was, for very different reasons, 63 years ago.

The Egyptians have decided to develop tourism on the Western Desert's coastline, running from Alexandria to the Libyan border by way of Mersa Matrouh and Sidi Barani. The 180 miles between Alexandria and Mersa Matrouh are covered by the first stage of that development, and El Alamein - roughly halfway between them - is where it has begun.

A new airport has been built for the charter jets that will bring in holidaymakers. It currently deals with one plane a week - the Mondaymorning Boeing 757 from Gatwick operated by Astraeus for Peltours.

Being the only arrival means little fuss and formality entering Egypt, though it entails buying an [pounds sterling]8 visa. First impressions during the 12-mile drive to the hotel were of a barren landscape, thinly populated by Bedouin tribesmen.

That evening I heard of plans for four more hotels in the immediate vicinity, as well as a golf course, sports complex and shopping mall.

Apartments close by are intended as holiday rentals or for sale. I wondered if there was a similarly detailed plan for the whole of the coast as far west as Mersa Matrouh.

Uncontrolled development could spell disaster. There had to be a plan ...

'This is the plan,' said His Excellency Mohamed Al Shahat, dropping a thick document on to the coffee table in his office. It covers every aspect of development, from accommodation and transport to water supplies and waste disposal.

Much time, money and expertise has gone into it. I was impressed.

Even more impressive is Mohamed Al Shahat himself. A former head of Egypt's Air Defence Force, the Governor of Matrouh Governorate (province) is totally committed to tourist development and has already improved water and electricity services to the coast.

HE IS a man used to having his orders obeyed promptly. His style could upset some local politicians and businessmen. But if the coast is to be developed properly it needs firm control from the top.

Meeting him reinforced my conviction that this region is destined to become Egypt's Algarve. Faro airport's opening in 1965 brought tourists and prosperity to Portugal's-south coast. The opening of El Alamein airport will do the same for this stretch of the Mediterranean's southern shore.

But that is to come. In the meantime, visitors can expect very little outside the hotel. Independent restaurants, bars and shops will arrive when more hotels create customers for them. Until then, you must depend on the hotel's facilities.

The 253-room Movenpick El Alamein is as new as the airport serving it and time should smooth out its few rough edges. Located on the broad white sands of Ghazala Bay, it has four swimming pools, two tennis courts, two airconditioned squash courts, gymnasium, aerobics room and spa, with sauna, Jacuzzi and steam bath.

Holidaymakers praised the friendly staff, though with less than 150 guests, they weren't overstretched. …

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