Egypt’s Ministry of Civil Aviation has denied reports of the resumption of chartered flights between Russia and the Egyptian Red Sea cities of Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada after a five-year hiatus following the crash of a Russian flight in Sinai in October 2015.
Head of Egypt’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) Ashraf Noweir said last Thursday that the authority had approved a request from the Russian Nordwind Airlines to operate four trips per week to Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada starting on 28 March.
The statement was translated in news reports into official confirmation of the resumption of chartered air traffic to the two popular Red Sea destinations after more than five years of the absence of flights to the two cities.
Direct flights between Moscow and Cairo were halted following the 2015 plane crash, but were resumed in April 2018 while direct flights to Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada were still suspended.
A Russian security delegation inspected the Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada airports a few weeks ago and followed up on security and safety measures to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 in preparation for the resumption of Russian flights.
However, the Russian civil aviation agency Rosaviatsia said on Friday that it could not confirm that flights were set to resume in March to Egypt’s Red Sea resorts.
Egypt’s minister of civil aviation, Mohamed Manar, said on Sunday that the ministry’s agencies had not received information from Russia regarding the resumption of chartered air traffic to Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada.
He added that no contact had been made regarding the resumption of flights since the Russian inspection and security committee left Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada airports at the beginning of February.
However, Manar stated that airlines had submitted requests to Egypt’s CAA to approve flights to the airports of the two Red Sea cities.
Vice-President of the Russian Tour Operators Association Dmitry Gorin told the Russian news agency Sputnik that no official information had yet been received from either Russia or Egypt regarding the opening of a flight programme from Russia to the two Egyptian Red Sea resorts, adding that flights to Cairo were continuing according to an extended schedule.
“News about the resumption of Russian flights to the Red Sea gave the industry great optimism,” said Ezzat Abdel-Ghaffar, a tourism expert and regional internal auditor at the Travco Group, a travel agency.
He added that the request to approve flights next month to Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada confirmed the confidence of the Russians in the Egyptian tourist destinations, especially in the light of the precautionary measures taken by the government and the ministries of tourism, civil aviation, and health.
Abdel-Ghaffar said that a renewal of the flights would help the tourism industry to recover, which has been heavily affected by the coronavirus pandemic as Russia is one of the largest exporting countries of tourism to Egypt.
Tourism has been affected in every country, and not only in Egypt, as a result of the closure and flight suspension measures taken as part of precautionary measures adopted by various governments to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Precautionary measures in Egypt have included the occupation rates of tourist resorts and hotels not exceeding 50 per cent, also adopted on transportation during domestic flights, and maintaining social distancing in all activities, Abdel-Ghaffar pointed out.
He added that encouraging domestic tourism and not relying on certain markets were important lessons that the industry had learned from the current crisis.
The ministries of tourism and antiquities and civil aviation, in cooperation with the Egyptian Hotel Association, launched the “Enjoy your winter in Egypt” initiative from 15 January to 28 February to encourage Egyptians and foreigners to visit tourist and archaeological sites across the country.
The initiative led to a 50 per cent increase in permissible occupancy rates at hotels across Egypt, according to the Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism.
“We hope that tourist flows to Egypt begin to improve starting from the winter season that begins in October 2021, if the Covid-19 vaccines prove successful,” Abdel-Ghaffar said.
New Covid-19 variants are causing governments to continue with travel bans to curb the spread of the virus, leading to a slower recovery of the travel industry worldwide. The tourism industry lost an estimated $1.3 trillion in revenues in 2020.
According to the Egyptian Tourism Federation, the number of tourists who visited Egypt during 2020 reached four million, compared to the 13 million who visited in 2019, confirming the hard blow the tourism industry had taken as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to statistics of the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE), the number of tourists who visited Egypt during 2019 amounted to 13.1 million, an increase of 1.8 over 2018, when the number had reached 11.3 million. The total number of tourists in 2017 was 8.3 million, and in 2016 the number was 5.4 million.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 February, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly