Tourism versus terrorism in Egypt

Camel in sandy desert near mountains at sunset

Former West Australian mine worker Justin Tanner has found a haven on the Egyptian Red Sea coast where he’s been training as a divemaster, and enjoying the laid-back lifestyle.

Staying in the long-time backpacker hang-out of Dahab, where goats wander the dusty streets and camels are parked in the alleyways, the 31-year-old from Perth relishes his beachside lifestyle on the Gulf of Aqaba.

“Every morning you’re sitting in a cafe having breakfast overlooking the water, the sun is coming up over Saudi Arabia, it’s a really nice stop,” he says.

But the Sinai Peninsula resort town, renowned for its dive sites and wind surfing, has hit hard times, along with its upmarket neighbour, Sharm el-Sheikh, down the coast.

Hundreds of international flights a week into Sharm’s international airport were cancelled after a Russian airliner that took off from there on October 31 crashed with the loss of 224 lives.

The Islamic State group claims it planted a bomb in a soft-drink can on the aircraft, with suspicion falling on airport baggage handlers.

Moscow has concluded the plane was downed by a bomb and Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El Sisi this week said terrorists aiming to hurt the country’s tourism industry were to blame.

Tourist numbers to the South Sinai have since plunged by around 85 per cent, prompting hotel closures and staff lay-offs.

“The people are really hurting now,” Tanner says, referring to the tens of thousands in South Sinai who rely on tourism for a living.

Among the businesses affected are the dive centres that guide scuba and snorkelling tourists out to explore the Red Sea’s renowned coral reefs, where turtles share the waters with a vast range of colourful fish species.

Also reliant on tourism are the region’s Bedu people who guide visitors into the arid mountain interior for jeep safaris and canyon trekking, camel riding and traditional hospitality at oasis villages.

Security measures are evident at Sharm’s luxury hotels where guards use mirrors on sticks to check under taxis dropping guests off.

Military and police checkpoints are in place between Sharm and Dahab, with armoured cars standing by and fortified machine-gun posts overlooking the road.

After the plane crash, British experts were sent to help bolster security at Sharm’s airport, but months later the flights have not been restored.

Tanner says he’s always felt completely safe in South Sinai and would encourage his friends and family to visit, but notes that Australian government travel warnings are a deterrent.

The government’s smarttraveller website advises Australians to reconsider their need to travel to Egypt due to the threat of terrorist attack and kidnapping.

The website says tourists remain an attractive target for extremists in South Sinai and warns that foreign nationals have been kidnapped there, including on the road to the ancient Saint Catherine monastery in the interior.

Tourism operators are understandably upset by the ongoing suspension of flights and feel the threat of terror attacks in the region has been overblown.

In Sharm el-Sheikh, tourist agent Mohamed Hedaia says everyone is hoping the flights will resume.

“I would like to tell all the people everywhere, if you’d like to come to Egypt, come to our South Sinai, it’s very safe. Don’t be afraid, everything is under control.”

At Churchill’s Bar at the Red Sea Relax resort hotel, members of Dahab’s expatriate community question Britain’s motives for stopping the flights and suspect there might be more to it than just the given explanation of keeping Britons safe from terrorism.

They note that the UK has not suspended flights to Turkey despite recent terror attacks there, including a suicide bombing in central Istanbul in January that killed 10 German tourists.

The expats at Churchill’s wonder if the UK government isn’t using the flight suspensions as a diplomatic bargaining chip with Egypt in the midst of fraught Middle Eastern tensions and conflict.

They also wonder if there isn’t a behind-the-scenes goal of diverting tourists from low-price Egyptian holidays to recession-hit Greece and Spain to bolster their revenues and so take the strain off northern European Union countries bailing them out.

Former British army captain Chris Tomley, who owns and operates Red Sea Relax, stresses a difference between “peaceful” South Sinai and North Sinai where there are regular attacks on security forces, often tied up with crime gangs involved in smuggling into the adjacent Gaza Strip.

He believes the media has given an inaccurate portrayal of the terrorist threat in South Sinai.

“There is no reason British people should not come to South Sinai in their hundreds of thousands,” he says.

But when one door closes, another may open.

Tomley and other tourism operators are busy sourcing other markets to make up for the European and Russian shortfalls, focusing on well-off, middle-class Egyptians in Cairo, as well as Middle Eastern and Asian tourists.

Tomley says tourism has been happening in Egypt for four thousand years since the construction of the pyramids.

“I’m sure we can do another few hundred yet.”

Image credit: iStock

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