Nature-based tourism: Wadi Al-Hitan (Egypt)

The wide range of benefits generated through cultural ecosystem services are complex, multidimensional and can contribute significantly to human well-being. While the cultural, spiritual and aesthetic aspects of ecosystem services play an essential role in human existence and quality of life, nature-based tourism also has the capacity to provide economic, educational and conservation benefits. With biodiversity and ecosystems in peril around the world, ecotourism is increasingly being embraced as a means of conserving protected areas. World Heritage Sites, by virtue of their globally recognized status, are often popular tourist destinations. While nature-based tourism is not always considered beneficial and potential negative impacts should also be taken into consideration when planning, the sustainable tourism initiative undertaken at Wadi Al-Hitan World Heritage Site provides an example of how nature-based tourism can be used to benefit both local communities and natural World Heritage Sites.

Key Messages

- The benefits nature-based tourism can provide to World Heritage Sites has been explored in both conservation and development contexts, and has been recognized for its ability to generate funds, create awareness and encourage conservation efforts by providing education and promoting sustainable practices. 

- Nature-based tourism initiatives can also facilitate local empowerment and encourage local communities to take responsibility for the long-term conservation of their natural assets.

- While it is important to recognize the benefits tourism can bring to the conservation of World Heritage Sites, it is equally important to acknowledge that this is not a one-size-fits-all approach and that negative impacts can result from mismanagement. Poorly managed tourism can compromise the integrity of a site, as well as its Outstanding Universal Value, and potentially create negative socio-cultural implications.

Location and World Heritage designation

The Wadi Al-Hitan World Heritage Site, also known as the Valley of the Whales, is situated in Egypt's Western Desert and covers 20,000 ha.  The site is located 150km southwest of Cairo and is part of, and managed under, the Wadi El-Rayan Protected Area (WRPA). Wadi Al-Hitan became a Special Protected Area within WRPA in 1997 and was awarded World Heritage Status in 2005. Identified as a site of Outstanding Universal Value under Criterion (viii), Wadi Al-Hitan has been recognized as the most important site in the world for demonstrating the pivotal evolutionary phase in which whales evolved from land-based mammals (UNEP-WCMC, 2011e). Emerging from a sediment depression that once represented a shallow bay in the Tethys Sea 40 million years ago, the fossils at Wadi Al-Hitan are distributed through three Eocene formations and provide a rich example of the fossil record through time. In addition to exemplary whale skeletons, the site has also revealed an abundant array of other life forms, including sea cows, turtles, crocodilians, marine invertebrates, and vegetation – such as ancient mangrove species.

Nature-based tourism

In 2005, the World Bank carried out a Country Environmental Analysis which identified Egypt's environmental problems as being closely linked with localized poverty.  The same year the global Millennium Ecosystem Assessment highlighted linkages between human well-being and poverty reduction (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005). With this being said, ecotourism opportunities associated with the conservation of natural and cultural World Heritage Sites, providing that benefits are equitably shared, can foster community participation and support for conservation efforts through awareness building and education. In its recent evaluation report (2013), the Egyptian Italian Environmental Cooperation Programme approached the issue of poverty alleviation and the advancements made regarding quality of life. In assessing the impacts of the programme, the report concluded that projects, including those ongoing at Wadi Al-Hitan, enabled both natural and cultural World Heritage Sites to become community development assets. Benefits that ecotourism can provide to communities surrounding Wadi Al-Hitan include: job creation, local economy diversification, community awareness/education, and additional support operations. With increases in tourism, local beneficiaries can also develop their own small businesses – including handicraft production.

Although an earlier report (2007) produced by the Nature Conservation Sector of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency found that local communities around the Wadi El-Rayan Protected Area had limited awareness of the benefits the protected area provided to their communities, Wadi Al-Hitan has been identified as a good example of how well planned tourism development can provide local benefits (Borges, Carbone et al., 2011). Although small-scale, most of the services offered to site visitors are provided by local communities. In order to facilitate this, emphasis has been placed on capacity building so that local people can develop the skills they need to offer these services (Borges et al., 2011).

Wadi Al-Hitan reflects a World Heritage site which has undergone a gradual transformation in regards to the conservation and management of its geological legacy. The increased prioritization of the site, along with internal restructuring and considerable improvements in regards to monitoring and ecotourism development were cultivated with a specific goal in mind – to establish the site as an example for other protected areas in Egypt. Although management work, in response to growing visitor numbers, had already begun at the site prior to its inscription, the strategies implemented as a result of World Heritage listing demonstrate concerted efforts to minimize damage to the site while improving the experiences of tourists. In receiving World Heritage status in 2005, a stronger emphasis was put on the conservation of Wadi Al-Hitan.  This emphasis included more community involvement, improved infrastructure and interpretation materials, staff capacity building and increased governmental support.