Published: Saturday 15 April 1995

Peace and economic fortune in West Asia has arrived at a cost too dear to measure in purely financial terms: the environment is drowning under the sheer weight of tourism. The coral reefs of the Red Sea are disintegrating as tourists snorkel dive to watch sea life in these clear waters going about its business. The biggest trouble spot, fear marine biologists from Israel, Egypt and Jordan, is likely to be the complex ecosystem of the Gulf of Aqaba.

The Gulf, home to the northernmost corals in the world, seems almost certainly headed for a bigger mess as Egypt firms up its plans to set up a "Red Sea Riviera". Poor in oxygen content, the Gulf is an ideal environment for a wide variety of corals. But pollution is changing the balance by leading to a largescale proliferation of seaweeds and planktonic algae, both of which hasten the destruction of the corals by suffocating them and cutting off the sunlight that the corals require for growth. Israeli officials from the Nature Reserve Authority believe that divers cause severe damage to the reefs, breaking coral formations, stirring up sand that smothers and damages polyps, and mindlessly snapping off pieces of the reef as take-home souvenirs.

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