AIN SOKHNA: In the labyrinthine world of politics, ever more complicated by the global phenomenon of the “businessman-politician it’s not always easy to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Nothing is simpler than lumping the usual suspects together – politicians with powerful party affiliations, who double as businessmen, running huge conglomerates, and developing mega-projects that target the crème de la crème of society and, of course, making a sizable fortune in the process.
So when the chairman of a weighty establishment like Amer Group, National Democratic Party member and former MP Mansour Amer, organizes a field visit for the press to tour his project in Ain Sokhna, it’s difficult not to be suspicious of his “real intentions.
After all, we are journalists and it’s our job to be suspicious of those with power and influence.
But first, a disclaimer: I don’t usually accept such invitations because it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that most of these “site trips are only after some good free publicity.
So why did I go? I was simply curious to meet the man whose new concept in Porto Marina in the North Coast was the talk of the town all summer. But if I thought there was nothing worth writing about, I said to myself, I won’t write a single word.
When we arrived at Porto Sokhna, we were greeted warmly by an extremely down-to-earth Amer, who ushered us into French café/patisserie Alain Le Notre, one of Amer Group’s restaurants which include other international chains like Chili’s and Johnny Carino’s.
I was surprised to find that even though the first phase of the project was not complete, a huge part of it was fully functional, with sizable luxury hotel rooms, restaurants and a marina boasting some very sleek yachts.
After getting the dime tour of the completed part of the facility, we were driven up a craggy mountain road about 190 meters above sea level, where a tent was pitched to house the press roundtable discussion.
There was nothing there but the tent and the power of Amer’s contagious imagination, which had us envision his plans for this rough plateau of seemingly impenetrable mountain overlooking the glorious Red Sea: A residential and vacation resort covering 2.5 million square meters of cliff face with the highest point measuring some 270 square meters above sea level.
This would be a good 20-or so minute drive uphill, except that when Amer is through with it, residents and vacationers won’t have to drive anywhere, all they’ll need to do is hop on to Egypt’s first and only cable car.
“And when you reach the highest peak, you’ll find yourself at a picturesque replica of an ancient Italian village packed with designer boutiques, restaurants and coffee shops, he explained.
All I was thinking was why on earth would anybody come to Ain Sokhna to buy an Armani suit, or a pair of Christian Dior boots?
Only during the ensuing discussion did I comprehend the scale of Amer Group’s Porto Sokhna project, dubbed their most ambitious enterprise yet.
At a cost of LE 3 billion, Amer said, “we are creating a destination and changing the map of tourism in the area.
The source of funding, he explained, was a combination of personal, pre-sale and bank loans, which will not exceed 10 percent of the total cost.
Banking on Ain Sokhna’s year-round warm climate, Amer sees no reason why this destination would not be as popular as the Swiss Alps and the Lebanese mountains.
And there’s no dearth of superlatives when it comes to listing the facilities on offer: a 2 million-square meter world class, 18-hole mountain golf course, a yacht marina, the largest spa compound in the region housing five spa resorts of various themes over a 5000-square meter area, three shopping malls with a total number of 260 shops, restaurants and cinemas, the largest swimming pool in the country at 30,000 square meters, and a 250-person capacity gymnasium.
With a luxurious hotel, hotel apartments, villas and ranches, Amer Groups hopes to promote the vacation home concept where the Group would lease the apartments year round on behalf of the owners in return for 30 percent of the rent value.
“By offering complete housekeeping facilities, the owners, who don’t spend more than one month of the year there, will get a return on their investment and we will be keeping the destination alive all year. With 400 hotel rooms and 1,690 vacation homes, we will target 2,686,400 tourist nights per year, said Amer.
“We want to change the notion of Ain Sokhna as a weekend destination, and rebrand it as ‘Cairo’s Beach’.
Powering this massive project, he said, is the strategic decision to allow charter flights to land at Cairo Airport, which means that vacationers are merely a couple of hours’ drive away from Ain Sokhna.
Marketing it mainly as a family destination, Amer reaffirms his commitment to the Group’s no-alcohol and none-smoking policy – none of his facilities sell alcohol or shisha, but guests and residents are free to bring their own drinks – and the resort’s focus on sports, where he hopes to attract teams from all over the world to hold their training camps.
Another interesting addition to the mix, though I’m not quite sure how it fits in, were plans to build a boarding school that offers world-class education and enjoys all the sports facilities available at the site.
Asked whether he’s targeting Egyptian or foreign buyers, Amer said that it made no difference. “The point is that now the owners will be the new stake-holders.
“But will average Egyptians be able to afford any of this ‘elite’ living as you advertise it? I asked Amer.
“I am not targeting the highest-end buyer, he said. “Where else in the world would you be able to buy a luxury apartment overlooking a golf course for $50,000? As for the hotel rates, it’s a matter of supply and demand. The more rooms available, the lower the rates.
Suites at the 650-room hotel at Porto Marina, however, cost anywhere between LE 4,000-7,500 per night, while a standard double room goes for LE 1,200-2,000 per night.
I wasn’t convinced.
And as we embarked on the bumpy ride down the hill and I was once more faced with the massive concrete construction site that lay beneath, just a couple of hundred meters from the marina, I suddenly wondered about the environmental impact of tampering with the Red Sea coast’s topography.
What about marine life? And will the new Koraymat highway be able to absorb all the truck traffic and improve road safety? How can Porto Sokhna market itself as a health tourism destination when merely 40 km away, there’s an industrial zone with cement factories? What about homogenization – Porto Marina, Porto Sokhna and perhaps the newest kid on the block Porto Golf – all replicas of each other? Is that a good thing?
Then I remembered that this project alone provides jobs for about 7,000 people – nearly 8 million paid working days until it is complete in November 2009.