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It Takes Two To Tango: Hands Across The Med

Above: Artisans at the Cyprus-Egypt exposition. Photo: Inji Amr, MAWARED

Geotourism theme unites St. Catherine, Egypt and Troodos, Cyprus    

The St. Catherine region of Egypt’s Sinai and the Troodos Mountains of Cyprus are attractive Mediterranean destinations with a lot in common: UNESCO World Heritage recognition, substantial tourism potential, wealth of creative, nonpolluting community industries, and distinctive local agriculture. Both offer unique, self-contained, and unspoiled destination experiences ready for responsible and engaging tourists to visit and actively help develop. Both destinations struggle to keep growing their unique natural products in the face of commercial modernization pressures that affect land and society.

Photo: Tarek El-Baz
Troodos. Photo: Tarek El-Baz

To initiate a new economic collaboration between the two locales, more than 80 geo-travellers from St. Catherine visited Plattres/Troodos, the “Green Heart of Cyprus,” on September 12-15, 2013 to participate in a geotourism-themed dual-nation conference and exhibition entitled “From Bio-diversity to Geo-Diversity.”

This Cypriot-Egyptian event was the product of a new initiative called Connect to Grow (C2G), which uses the innovative concept of geotourism to help poor or vulnerable communities adopt a joint operating platform for marketing the local agro-food and creative industries essential to these rural communities. C2G is intended to assist any such rural communities that have unique business ideas and entrepreneurial vision.

Troodos is a protected area according to the EU Network; its churches are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage. The expo launched an initiative that builds on a history of cultural and economic links between Egypt and Cyprus. Egyptians, including the former King Farouk, have long favoured the Troodos Mountains as a resort destination. Both share a British colonial past as well. Supporting the visit were Egypt’s MAWARED foundation for Sustainable Development in collaboration with Cyprus’s Local Council of Platres and YPM Consulting,

The Egyptian party included three segments— civil society, responsible government officials, and responsible business entrepreneurs from the agro-food and creative industries, along with the St. Catherine’s Medicinal Plants Association (SCMPA), including Bedouin farmers and artisans.  Welcoming them were the Troodos Network (the leading local NGO) with the strong support by the local council of Plattres/Troodos and the governments of both Cyprus and Egypt.

 Mutual exploration

Activities during the Egyptian visit included seeing and sampling items unique to each of the natural reserves, such as herbs and spices, as well as exploring the forests and natural environment of Troodos and discovering the creative work of both destinations. This was the first time that a community NGO, representing St. Catherine, has had the opportunity to introduce its products abroad directly and not through a mediator.

Bedouin expo participant. Photo: Inji Amr, MAWARED
Bedouin expo participant. Photo: Inji Amr, MAWARED

Cypriot and Egyptian participants learned from each other.  Some discoveries were practical: Bedouin artisans learned a way to improve their traditional soaps; Cypriot artisans learned a new weaving technique. The two agricultural communities also gained new perspectives from each other on their respective climatic limitations—St. Catherine as a desert and Troodos as a winter-freeze zone.

Most significantly, each community learned that their own culture and way of life is of interest to others.

Geotourism as catalyst

Geotourism trips like this one can serve as a catalyst for helping targeted women and young entrepreneurs penetrate markets, access finance, and market their products—especially to geotourists who go beyond practicing eco-friendly tourism to sustaining and supporting community stewardship and human livelihood.

For these two destinations, developing food-related products is primarily an act of passion, of caring to keep local culinary traditions and artisanry alive. So by embracing the simple human quest of experiencing basics of a destination—traditional food, culture, nature, and knowledge—the geotourism approach becomes an engine for adding value, triggering collaboration between the two destinations in the form of:

  1. Growth in market demand for both places;
  2. Citizen participation, especially among women and young people;
  3. Increased “destination pride” (as emphasized by the “godfather of geotourism,” Jonathan Tourtellot)—in essence, the pride that people take in celebrating our diversity and special natural and cultural identity.

 Wide applicability

This geotourism-led solution can apply to vulnerable communities in various Euro-Mediterranean countries, such as Cyprus, Lebanon (Arz El-Choouf Biosphere), Tunisia, and of course to Natural and Biosphere reserves in Egypt. Along with the governorate of South Sinai (St. Catherine), Egyptian communities in the governorate of New Valley (villages of Bashandi & Mounira) and of Aswan (Nubia and Wadi Allaqi) all face similar challenges.

Such communities have the opportunity to sell their their creative artwork as well as traditional agricultural foods and herbs within their communities when geotourists travel to Egypt. St. Catherine’s has 472 species of rare medicinal plants, of which 19 are endemic. Poorly informed farming and tourism practices now put some species at risk. Raising their perceived value is critical. Responsible tourism that appreciates culture and nature can create market demand for such products, which these communities urgently need.

 Growth in knowledge

That has been a reason for communities to upgrade their products to be in compliance with tastes and technical requirements of EU markets.  C2G takes these vulnerable communities beyond production standards and compliance (which does not by itself guarantee access to market demand) to include learning about obtaining access to local and regional markets; l attaining sustainable value-chain integration, ownership and governance; and acquire business development skills and the ability to form microenterprises or SMEs.

During their visit, St. Catherine participants, for instance, were able to improve commercial exchange skills by learning about quality-control practices and business expertise from the Cypriot Plattres Council and YPM Business Consulting.

CREATE team artisan. Photo: Inji Amr
CREATE artisan. Photo: Inji Amr, MAWARAD

Keys to success

The success of the C2G model can be attributed to heartfelt desire by the vulnerable community to improve and get better. But dynamic knowledge and practice of commercial activities needs more than better information. Ownership of lessons learned requires generating and institutionalizing Hubs of Knowledge among participating countries.

This will materialize when responsible government members engage with responsible business people with a sufficiently long-term perspective. In the case of the Troodos visit, unparalleled representation ranged from Bedouins of St. Catherine, who had never before left Egypt, to high government officials of both Cyprus and Egypt. Representing Cyprus were H.E. Commissioner of Environment and Commissioner of Volunteering and NGOs; representing Egypt were the current and former H.E. Ministers of Environment, demonstrating continuity of effort.

The collaborative approach adds dimensions to the existing intrinsic value of both destinations:

  1. By sharing effort and resources, the two destinations can drive down the costs of exhibiting indigenous knowledge of medicinal and aromatic herbs from both destinations. Over 150 visitors at the Expo had an opportunity to buy traditional artwork from St. Catherine as well as indigenous Cypriot herbs and honey.
  2. Product enhancement: A local young group of designers called “CREATE Team” help generate knowledge that does not disrupt indigenous practices. Trained in Cyprus and working with local community producers and processors (majority of whom are women), the youth team helps develop products and add innovative techniques and designs to already distinctive cultural products.
  3. A joint twinning agreement between the Platres Community Council (PCC) and the St Catherine’s Medicinal Plants Association (SCMPA) formalized the steps by creating a network of NGOs in Egypt and Cyprus to materialize and foster what was learned, namely:
    • Capacity building: How to maintain market-driven products while keeping their authentic local nature.
    • Business acumen: How to make viable business deals and design systems for quality control.
    • Cultural awareness: Learning and building shared respect for differences in destination cultures.
    • Public relations: Teaming up to support advocacy programs for both destinations.

This process is replicable. It can generate and institutionalize Hubs of Knowledge among participating countries.

The “Connect to Grow” solution thus adds value to both host and visiting communities. This is how Two Destinations Can Tango.

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Editor’s note: The Connect-to-Grow approach was selected for one of the presentations this past February at the UNDP-affiliated First Arab States Regional South-South Development Expo in Doha. Of all presenting teams, only C2G’s included members of the target communities. An excellent innovation, we think.

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