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Tension in Egypt's Sharm as tourists stranded amid flight cancellations

Tourists stranded in Sharm El-Sheikh say information is lacking on when they can go home, while Egypt's tourist workers fear the worst as it appears the Russian plane crash was due to a bomb attack

Sherif Tarek in Sharm El-Sheikh, Saturday 7 Nov 2015
Sharm
A British embassy consular official (R) stands to offer any needed help as British passengers queue to leave the airport of the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, November 6, 2015 (Reuters)
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A Sharm El-Sheikh Airport official says security measures, including searching passengers and their luggage, have become more strict amid tension in the coastal resort following last weekend's crash of a Russian plane.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media, refused to comment on reports suggesting that lax security at the airport could have paved the way for militants to plant onboard an explosive device that brought down a Russian airliner last Saturday while heading from Sharm to St Petersburg, killing all 224 passengers 23 minutes after takeoff.

The British tabloid The Daily Mail cited Wednesday some tourists pointing a finger at security guards at Sharm El-Sheikh Airport, saying they had bribed them into skipping security procedures. Other claimed to have seen a security official playing computer games and another falling asleep while on duty.

"The searching process have become more strict, by the book," the airport official said, without clarifying if procedures had been indeed lacklustre beforehand. "The number of employees has increased to ensure a thorough process of searching, while security forces, both police and army, are heavily deployed at the airport to maintain a high level of security."

The heightened security at Sharm El-Sheikh Airport comes as analysis of the black boxes from the plane reportedly indicate 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," one source told the French media. The data "strongly favours" the theory that a bomb onboard brought down the plane, he added.

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.

As investigations continue, a number of countries, including Russia, Britain, France, Germany, the UAE and Turkey, have either re-routed flights over Sinai or suspended flights into Sharm altogether on a temporary basis.

On Friday, as security has become particularly tight with policemen and soldiers scattered in airport halls and outside gates, safety did not seem to worry tourists as much as not knowing when they will return home or leave Sharm El-Sheikh.

Merlin Toelke, a 21-year-old German psychology student who has been in Sharm El-Sheikh for a week, says he does not feel threatened, but rather stranded and agitated after his flight was cancelled.

Smoking outside the hall with his colleague Florian Tafelmeieo, who was in Sharm a few days ahead of the crash and also had his flight cancelled, Toelke and his friend were waiting for a Turkish Airlines representative to inform them when they will fly home.

"It's not that we feel it's not safe, but at some point you just need to go home and go on with your life and be able to plan it as you want," Toelke said. "Safety is not a concern, but many people here are stranded for the time being, and that's the main problem."

"Also, we don't really see a logic behind what's going on. Some flights are cancelled, while others aren't, so we really don't know how safe flying is now. In all cases, I won't pay anything extra. It is the airline that is responsible for getting me back home."

While airlines will incur losses as a result of cancelled and rescheduled flights, and booking free reservations for their stranded customers, those who work in the industry of hospitality in Sharm El-Sheikh are set to lose much of their business due to the expected scarcity of tourists.

"The main concern is that the incident and the subsequent reactions could hamper tourism's recovery," said Amary Abdel Aziz, head of the tourism and aviation division in the Cairo Chamber of Commerce.

"We were hoping the 2016 season would be better than the weak 2015 season," he added, a few days before 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.

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

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.

The Russian plane crash comes after another blow to tourism in Egypt when a number of Mexican tourists were killed in September in an accidental attack by Egyptian security forces while they were on a safari tour in the Western Desert.

Tourism workers who depend on day-to-day income from the industry will be the most affected, according to Naser, a driver in his 60s, who laments the expected fall in tourist numbers. "If it's a bomb, then that would be madness," he fumed.

"They [police] have been strictly imposing a uniform on taxi drivers since the economic summit in March, but they are unable to detect a bomb? It is us who will eventually suffer the most."

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