Egypt’s original eco resort, proud to have stayed small and simple

Egypt’s original eco resort, proud to have stayed small and simple

Words: Robert Langkjær-Bain

Photos: Tomás Delft

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Less turns out to be more at this eco lodge on Egypt’s Red Sea coast, guided by a determination to do right by its environment and community.

The morning sun is nudging through the gaps in your bamboo hut. That’s your wake-up call: time to step on to the beach and dip your toes in the water before breakfast. We gather in the shade around a low table and share from platters with flatbread, hummus, salad and stewed fava beans. Joining us are the resident cats, angling for food scraps, but settling for chin scratches.

This is Basata, Egypt’s original eco resort, welcoming travellers who want to leave the rest of the world behind since 1986.

No more than you need

Basata lies on Egypt’s Red Sea coast, just a couple of hours’ drive from Sharm El-Sheikh, the gaudy tourist town that – controversially – hosted this year’s UN climate conference. Pass through the police checkpoint at the edge of Sharm and another world begins. A solitary road winds through the lunar landscape of the Sinai peninsula until eventually the sea swings back into view, and on a stretch of beach between two cliffs, we find Basata. Here you can sleep right on the beach in your own tent or in one of the bamboo huts. For a little more comfort there are mud brick houses with domed roofs that seem to bulge out of the sand. Inside are cool, cosy interiors with everything you need – which means no TV and no minibar.

But outside, there’s plenty of entertainment. Slip on your fins and snorkel mask, and just metres from the shore you’ll find a dazzlingly diverse underwater world of coral, clownfish, and eels peeking out from hollows in the rocks. You might even meet a sea turtle, and you’re sure to find plastic scraps caught on the reef – which you’re encouraged to stuff in your swimsuit and bring back.

The corals here are uniquely precious, having evolved to withstand changes in temperature, giving them a chance to survive the warming waters that are expected to kill off most of the world’s corals this century. It would be tempting to don scuba gear and get a closer look, but the owners won’t allow diving, knowing that it would lead to more accidental damage.

Basata’s home-cooked food is a highlight, but the most satisfying meal of all is the one we get to make ourselves, in a breadmaking workshop run by women from the local Bedouin community. We devour our hot, wonderfully charred flatbread with mint tea and freshly ground coffee, flavoured with cardamom.

On our last night here we trek from the beach into the mountains, and dine under the stars on rice dishes cooked over a wood fire. Watching the sun set from a jagged hilltop, we can see as far as Israel. Down in the valley a little later, we can see no further than the candlelit faces around us. When we’re done eating, our hosts join us to answer questions about life, love, and everything you ever wanted to know about Egypt.

Keep on keeping it simple

For the founder Sherif El-Ghamrawy, this place has always been about escape. He first visited the spot in the early 1980s, and quickly decided to make it home, leaving behind a successful construction business in Cairo. El-Ghamrawy dreamed of a new kind of resort: one rooted in the culture and environment of the place, giving back as much as it took. “Basata was not a plan,” he says. “It happened step by step and according to our needs. I started with a little kitchen and one hut.” 

In the 36 years since, nearby Sharm El-Sheikh has grown from almost nothing to a city with 20,000 hotel rooms and Africa’s tenth busiest airport. Its skyline of four and five-star hotel complexes is interrupted only by the abandoned concrete skeletons of all the unfinished ones. Meanwhile El-Ghamrawy stopped building when he reached 20 huts and nine chalets. “It’s enough,” he says.

He now runs Basata with his German wife Maria Würfel – an early guest who kept coming back and at some point, never went home. Thirty-two years into their marriage, they still stop and take in the beauty of every full moon over the mountains. “Once we don’t see that, and it becomes normal, then something is wrong,” El-Ghamrawy says.

“No matter how you grew up, where you grew up, you need to be in nature”

Sherif El-Ghamrawy

It was El-Ghamrawy who named this place Basata – Arabic for simplicity – and he makes sure it earns the title. Mud bricks are made on site using an ancient technique. The beach huts are as basic as they look: poles stuck in the sand and bound with ropes. Solar heaters provide warm water which, after going down the plughole, irrigates the plants that shade the houses. An on-site herb garden and a nearby seven-acre farm provide olives, lemons, aubergines and more. Leftovers go to the goats, whose manure goes into mud bricks. And so on. Next on El-Ghamrawy’s list is solar power – a long-held dream that is finally becoming affordable.

The success of Basata allowed El-Ghamrawy to build a mosque and a school (which closed in the pandemic but hopes to reopen soon), and start an NGO that now collects and sorts waste for the whole surrounding area – saving more than 10 tonnes a day from landfill in the high season, and sending it to Cairo for recycling.

Time for tourism to change

Basata is the newest member hotel of Regenerative Travel, a US-based business set up in 2019 to champion “mission-driven” destinations. Founder Amanda Ho says her first question about any hotel is: “Does it honour the location that it’s in?” Then comes a long list of detailed questions covering ecological impact, inclusivity and ethical business practices, on which member hotels must provide regular updates. 

Regenerative Travel’s hotels don’t have to be perfect, but they have to meet certain standards and be committed to constant improvement. “We really care about whether the owners care,” says Ho. Regenerative Travel itself is a signatory to Tourism Declares Climate Emergency, committed to operating in line with the global 1.5℃ temperature target. 

Ho believes the regenerative approaches adopted by places like Basata need to go from the niche to the norm. She wants travellers to demand more, but she also wants the industry to evolve “so that the consumer doesn’t have to make these types of decisions”.

Bigger changes are needed too. Across the tourism industry as a whole, the carbon footprint of hotels is eclipsed by the carbon footprint of the flights people take to get to them. The industry’s challenge is to minimise that impact while maximising the potential for good that we see in places like Basata. It’s not easy. (El-Ghamrawy would love to see more people arrive by land, but conflict in Syria and Libya means Egypt is not the easiest place to reach without flying.) Until there’s more progress to make planes less polluting or make the alternatives more attractive, the only people who can reduce the climate impact of aviation are tourists themselves – by choosing to fly less, and making more of it when they do.

We need nature

Basata is one of the places showing, on a small scale, how tourism can not only be regenerative, but also give visitors something the conventional “luxury” venues can’t match: an experience of real hospitality in a fascinating corner of the world.

On our last morning here, El-Ghamrawy talks of acquaintances showing him photos of other breathtaking Egyptian locations, and proposing he expands. More houses, more sites, more facilities. But he lost interest in “more” a long time ago. “Sooner or later I would end up back in an office in Cairo,” he shrugs. Instead he chose this life, between the mountains, the waves and the stars, and that’s what he wants to share with visitors. “No matter how you grew up, where you grew up,” he says, “you need to be in nature.”

Before leaving I ask El-Ghamrawy to describe the feeling this place gives him. He looks to the sea and takes a deep breath. “Calm.”

5 and Regenerative Travel

5 sponsored a retreat at Basata Eco Lodge organised by Regenerative Travel for attendees at the COP27 UN climate conference. 5 is an impact media foundation which helps others maximise their impact through storytelling and community building. We produce our content independently and we don’t take payment for coverage.

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