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Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Egypt's Sharm El-Sheikh is not dead, yet

Sherif Tarek , Saturday 7 Nov 2015
Sharm El-Sheikh
Tourists sunbathe in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on November 7, 2015 (AFP)
Views: 10611
Views: 10611

Friday after midnight in Naama Bay, Sharm El-Sheikh's most vibrant and crowded area, the density of tourists was obviously lower than average during this time of the year. But many of those who are in the Egyptian Red Sea resort awaiting their overseas flights are still making the most of the dying days of their vacations.

Many cafes and bars left and right in Naama Bay were half vacant, with several pedestrians scattered in an area that is usually bustling with people in the weeks leading up to Christmas holidays. However, the festive atmosphere of the typical night life of the area is not completely lost, even with fewer people after thousands of tourists have either flown back home or are set to in the coming few days.

Dancing and loud music can still be easily seen and heard. Holiday-makers of different ages -- friends, families and couples -- have anything but switched to evacuation mood and are still having a good time despite the tensions caused by last Saturday's Russian plane crash which killed all 224 on board while heading from Sharm to St Petersburg.

This morning, groups of tourists, again fewer than normal in Sharm's high season, could be seen on beaches tanning, reading and chilling out. Swimmers were enjoying the sea and kids casually played volleyball.

Anton Zinchenko, a Russian father of two who was spending Saturday afternoon on the beach with his family, is set to leave on Tuesday, and he is not in a rush to set off. "There are good conditions here, so no worries," he said in English.

"Many people are at the airport now and many flights are cancelled, and that will last for a few days. I don't want to be among such a crowd of people at the airport with my children. I can just relax and wait for my flight without rescheduling it and things should be calmer by then," he said.

Russians are the largest single tourist group in Egypt, making up about a fifth of foreign vacationers in the country over the past four years, as well as 60 percent of tourists to the Red Sea, according to official data.

In a blow to Egypt's already ailing tourism, President Vladimir Putin ordered the suspension of all Russian passenger flights to Egypt following a recommendation by the head of the Russian FSB security service.

Consequently, Russia joined several countries, including Britain, France, Germany, the UAE and Turkey, in re-routing flights over Sinai or suspending flights into Sharm altogether on a temporary basis. This has left large swathes of tourists stranded and unable to find out when they will go home.

"But until we're scheduled to leave there is no point of panicking," said Zinchenko, who works in an electronics company in his homeland. "Media can blow things out of proportion but the fact is it's perfectly safe here."

While similar sentiments were echoed by other tourists, a representative of tourism group Apple Tours, who is responsible for following up on the status of his British customers, says the Britons, who are also numerous in Sharm, are not trying to bring forward their flights.

"They go on time to the airport and their respective airline would provide accommodation for them if the flight is cancelled," Mohamed Hassan said. "None of them really asked for immediate departure; this is not evacuation."

Tensions have increased since, almost concurrently with several states' decisions to halt flights to Sharm, an analysis of the black boxes from the plane reportedly indicated that the crash was most likely caused by a bomb attack.

Flight data and voice recorders showed that everything was normal until both failed, pointing to a very sudden explosive decompression, according to media reports. The data favours the theory that a bomb onboard brought down the plane, according to experts.

The Islamist militant group Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, which has been waging deadly attacks against the Egyptian army in Sinai for several years, claimed responsibility for the plane crash, whose causes are yet to be conclusively determined.

While foreigners who are still in Sharm are maintaining composure, the city is expected to be deserted in less than two weeks. "Of course we can barely get any new foreign tourists these days, they are all leaving with no one coming," Hassan said.

Workers in Sharm understandably fear for their livelihoods, which are highly contingent on tourists' turnout. Many think the past week suggests the scarcity of foreigners in the city will last longer than any of the previous crunches Sharm has faced over the past years.

"We've seen a lot while working in Sharm," said Momen Maghraby, a 24-year-old bazar vendor. "Things like curfews during political disturbance over the past years, or even the 2006 bomb. Nothing has slowed things down like this plane crash did."

"All tourists of all nationalities who come here know how safe Sharm is and have no worries whatsoever to stay or even come again. It's their countries that prevent them from coming by halting flights. It seems to be rather a political decision."

Rueing the business deterioration following a brief period of improvement in a period of fluctuation over the past years, another vendor, Ahmed Taie, believes the possibility that the plane was brought down by an explosive device onboard should not be completely ruled out.

"People at the airport can indeed pay off people to skip security checks and procedures. I once sold a cat to an Italian lady and she managed to pass it through gates without the normal steps such as a medical certificate. I really hope that wasn't the case for the bomb because that will mean we're doomed."

The ailing tourism sector is one of Egypt's main sources of foreign currency, of which the country is in dire need to buy basic foodstuffs and fulfil its international obligations. Foreign currency reserves are almost at a critical level, standing at $16.41 billion at the end of October, most of which is made up of Gulf deposits.

Egyptian tourism authorities could not comment on the losses or expected long-term effects of the plane crash on the industry of hospitality. 

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