In its budding years el Gouna was a low-key resort town, flanked by the Red Sea’s azure waters and its jagged mountains, that trailed behind glitzier destinations in Egypt such as Sharm el Sheikh, favored by foreign tourists, and the country’s northern coast mostly frequented by locals. Yet, in its three decades of existence el Gouna has steadily climbed up the ranks earning an unrivaled reputation as a classy international resort as well as a home to thousands of residents who have relocated here seeking an alternative lifestyle. Despite its fast-paced growth and increasing popularity, el Gouna still maintains its raw beauty accentuated by the powerful winds that blow here the greater part of the year.
From a tight-knit seaside community, 20 km (12.5 miles) north of the port city of Hurghada, with a handful of hotels, one marina, and a spatter of residential compounds, el Gouna has grown to a sizeable town with a distinct identity shaped by the vision of its founder Egyptian entrepreneur Samih Sawiris. As head of Orascom Development Holdings, a position that he held until recently, Sawiris planned and built el Gouna from scratch molding it into a sophisticated, progressive, and environmentally-conscious mega development.
Sprawling over 37 million sqm (9,143 acres) of land, less than half of which has been developed, el Gouna consists of 20 islands and lagoons fed by the waters of its pristine coastline to the east. One of the theories about the meaning of the name el Gouna is that it comes from the Arabic word for lagoon. There are, however, other explanations including a claim that the name is based on the ancient Egyptian word for “protected.” In either case, this “protected” development sitting on land and water has grown to include 18 hotels that cater to various categories of tourists and an exploding number of villas and apartments. Some hotels have distinct styles such as the Sheraton Miramar designed by American architect Michael Graves whose inspiration derives from the work of his Egyptian counterpart, Hassan Fathi, a firm believer in the benefits of vernacular architecture. Similarly, many of el Gouna’s residential compounds are distinguished by their designs which reflect the styles of the Mediterranean, Nubia, Yemen, and Tuscany among others.
In addition to stylish accommodations and luxury housing, el Gouna offers visitors and residents a generous choice of activities. With two golf courses, three marinas, dive centers, tennis and squash courts, horse stables, and other facilities the town is a haven for adventure seekers as well as those with a penchant for more leisurely activities. Besides recreational sports, el Gouna has become a hub for sporting events hosting regional and international championships in kite surfing, squash, beach polo, and fishing to name a few. However, what has elevated this resort town in cultural circles is the el Gouna Film Festival inaugurated in 2017. The event has gained steady ground and credibility since its inception showcasing the best of Arab titles and a selection of international cinema. The festival, attended by the rich and famous in the Arab world, is held at the Conference and Culture Center, an architectural feat distinguished by its 20-meter (66 foot) high sand-colored colonnades inspired by Egyptian and Moorish heritage.As the town continues to attract more permanent residents, it has expanded its list of services. El Gouna offers its approximate population of 24,000, who call themselves “Gounies,” an international school, a university, vocational institutes, a library, a hospital, pharmacies, supermarkets, shops, and a top-notch communication network essential for digital nomads. The resort town even has its own radio station, cinema, winery, and a soccer club, FC el Gouna, which plays in the Egyptian Premier League.
Still, el Gouna’s most inspiring feature lies in its organic ties to the environment and commitment to sustainability. In the early days, residents used to comb the coastline armed with large trash bags donated by the mayor’s office to pick up waste that had washed up on shore. Now, the environmental vision has progressed to include solid waste recycling which turns plastic into hangers and trash bags. Additionally, waste water is converted to clean water used to irrigate el Gouna’s immaculate and colorful gardens. Finally, the resort’s household water needs are met through desalination plants which convert sea water to fresh water. Although construction and development have caused damage to the delicate ecosystems in this part the Red Sea, there are mitigation efforts. Among them is a plan to restore and expand the mangroves, one of the symbols of el Gouna. These trees, which can survive in salt water, stabilize the coastline by reducing erosion and serve as a habitat to fish, crabs, turtles, and birds.
With its relentless growth, el Gouna has lost some of the charm that characterized its beginnings. The intimate atmosphere and camaraderie once shared by residents, business owners, employees, and members of the management team is no longer. Yet, what the town retains are its graceful flair and natural appeal. The first light breaking over the horizon, and the sun disappearing behind the mountains, while the sky turns into intense hues of red and purple, and the wind picks up steam, are comforting constants that will forever define the el Gouna state of mind.