AN innovative environmental program, which could become a model for similar venues worldwide, has rescued this rapidly growing tourist and diving resort from the ravages of over-hasty developers and mushrooming scuba-diving centers.
The coral-reef and coastal preservation effort has reversed what was threatening to become an environmental disaster only six years ago on this strip of coastline along the Egyptian side of the Gulf of Aqaba. Its comprehensive approach includes limiting the number of boats and divers allowed to use the area, combating water and land pollution, and placing restrictions on development.
The program, known as the Ras Mohamed National Park Sector Development Project, has won the cooperation of developers and dive centers whose rapid expansion has been threatening coral reefs, which sustain an rich array of marine life. It is jointly funded and managed by the Egyptian government and the European Union (EU).
The project runs under the authority of the Egyptian Environmental Assistance Agency, a subdivision of the country's Department of Parks.
''Of the 50 countries which offer diving tourism, there are 12 where major environmental efforts are being made,'' says Rupert Ormond, director of the Tropical Marine Research Unit at the University of York, England, who is an adviser to the project.
Although initially confined to the Ras Mohamed National Park, which marks the southern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, the project now manages about 1,200 square miles of coastline and offshore reefs. That area stretches northward toward Nuweiba and about 5,000 square miles of the Sinai desert around the famous St. Catherine's Monastery and Moses Mountain.
''Since the program began six years ago, the Sinai has rapidly become one of two or three model cases of reef management,'' Mr. Ormond says, adding that the others are the Great Barrier Reef near Australia and the Florida coast in the United States.
Set between the turquoise waters of the Red Sea and the dramatic mountains of the southern Sinai desert, this strip of coastline in the Gulf of Aqaba is fast becoming one of the most sought-after dive sites in the world.
The Red Sea's all-round appeal and its proximity to Europe have established this resort as one of the most popular venues for scuba divers and sun seekers from countries like Italy, Germany, and Britain.
When the tourist industry here began expanding rapidly around 1988, uncontrolled development threatened to disrupt the region's delicate ecological balance.
The creation of artificial beaches, which involves sand being pushed forward onto the delicate coral reefs, can quickly smother the coral, too. The presence of many divers led to accumulative damage to the coral, which takes years to regenerate when it is broken.
Naama Bay, the focus of resort development at Sharm el-Sheikh, already boasts about 20 hotels in a strip along the coast. But the development of new resorts is now stretching several miles both north and south of Sharm el-Sheikh.
Instead of artificial beaches, which damage the coral, developers are being allowed to create ''dry'' beaches set back from the water that leave the coastline unaffected. These beaches are made by transporting sand to a hollowed out area in front of a hotel set back from the coast.
''When we opened 14 new diving sites in March this year, I was surprised to find how little damage there was to the corals,'' says Michael Pearson, manager of the project that operates from the Ras Mohamed National Park, a few miles south of here.
The program advises developers on how to build resorts in sync with the area's delicate ecological balance, enforces rules such as preventing the construction of structures more than two stories high, and outlaws the creation of artificial beaches.
What makes the project different from others is that instead of hostility between environmentalists and developers, the two parties have found it mutually beneficial to work together.
''It works because it has proved economically beneficial to the developers,'' says Amr Abdel Kawi, an Egyptian architect who designs hotels for Egyptian developers. ''The concept did not exist 10 years ago.''
Mr. Pearson says that the project always gave the developers alternatives and tried to meet their needs in a way that respected environmental needs.
''Developers accept responsibility for the area of the reef in front of their hotel. If they want to create a floating jetty, we allow them to do so but retain the right to remove it if it is incorrectly used. They respect that,'' Pearson says.
The project has also supervised the creation of more than 100 boat moorings at recognized dive sites, and its two patrol boats strive to ensure that no more than four of the 167 Egyptian-owned cabin cruisers are using a mooring any one time.
Meanwhile, the EU is also funding an oil-pollution combating center at Sharm el-Sheikh to deal with oil spills at sea and the cleanup of residue on the coastal beaches. An average of one tanker a day sails through the straits of Tirhan and up the Gulf of Aqaba to the ports of Eilat and Aqaba.
''We would not be able to deal with [the fallout of] a major disaster,'' says project manager Peter Neumann, a German oceanographer and former ship's captain.
''Our first priority will be combating spills at sea and cleaning them up before they reach the coast,'' Mr. Neumann says, adding that a major disaster would be an environmental catastrophe for the Red Sea.
In the past seven years, the number of tourists has increased around tenfold to 520,000 for 1995. Hotel accommodation has skyrocketed from about 1,000 hotel beds in 1988 to 12,500 this year. The number of visitors is expected to double again by 2017. About 35 percent of the visitors are scuba divers.
''When I arrived here six years ago, there was one hotel and about eight dive centers,'' says Tim Salter, director of the Red Sea Diving College, the only dive center that concentrates almost exclusively on diver training and education.
''Then 90 percent of the visitors were divers. You could stand on the beach, and there would be no one else in sight,'' says Mr. Salter, whose center now turns out 2,000 qualified divers and certifies between 75 and 100 diving instructors annually. Imparting a sharp environmental awareness and respect for the marine life is an integral part of the courses.
After Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula in the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict, the Red Sea coast between Eilat and Ras Mohammed became a favorite venue for Israelis and a handful of foreign divers.
But development was limited, and by 1982, when Israel withdrew and handed over the Sinai to Egypt under the custodianship of the Multinational Force of Observers, the focus of activity was at half a dozen or so diving schools. Environmental concerns were given top priority.
After the Israeli withdrawal, however, joint ventures between Egyptians and foreign countries began to spring up and environmental concerns were put on the back burner. By 1987, the situation was threatening to spiral out of control, and foreign environmentalists began to lobby the Egyptian government.
The result was the present project, which has succeeded in reversing the danger to the reefs and coastline. It has also created an awareness of environmental issues within the Egyptian government and among Egyptian tourists who visit the area. Last year some 6,000 Egyptians visited the Ras Mohamed National Park compared with about 62,000 foreigners. But the proportion of Egyptians to foreigners is increasing annually.
''I have noticed a complete change in the attitude of Egyptians visiting the park,'' says Omar Hassan, the Egyptian director of Ras Mohamed National Park. ''They are far more aware of the environment than they used to be, and they are showing a sense of pride in their national heritage.''