Tourists ride camels in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh on November 4, 2015, four days after the Russian plane crash over Sinai (AFP)
Egypt’s tourism ministry has labeled the UK’s decision to cancel flights to Sharm El-Sheikh a prejudgment, coming ahead of the official investigation results.
But the ambiguity surrounding the crash of the Russian jet in Sinai on Saturday could prove to be one more obstacle in the way of the recovery of Egypt's ailing tourism sector.
The United Kingdom, a country that sends a high number of tourists to Egypt every year, has suspended all flights by UK-based airlines over Sinai after fears that an explosive device was the likely cause of last weekend's crash. Accordingly up to 20,000 British tourists are awaiting flights home following the UK’s “precautionary” decision.
Russia also suspended all flights to Egypt on Friday. Around 45,000 Russians are currently on holiday in Egypt, Oleg Safonov, the head of Russia's state tourism agency, Rostourism, said on Friday, according to Tass news agency.
US President Barack Obama said on Thursday that a bomb on board was a “possible” cause of the crash.
Germany and France have also warned their citizens against traveling to Sinai, where major tourism hub Sharm El-Sheikh is located. German airline group Lufthansa said its low-cost carrier Eurowings and Edelweiss units are halting flights to the resort town for the time being as a precautionary measure given the situation in Sinai.
"The main concern is that the incident and the subsequent reactions could hamper tourism recovery," Amary Abdel Aziz, head of the Tourism and Aviation division in the Cairo Commercial Chamber, told Ahram Online by phone.
The tourism ministry has said the UK’s decision is a prejudgment ahead of the investigations results, adding that the Egyptian government oversees tourists’ safety while in the country.
"There is already an impact on future bookings following conflicting statements around the incident," the head of the Federation of Tourism Chamber El-Hamy El-Zayat said.
Tourism over the upcoming Christmas holidays will most likely suffer as tourist companies refund holidaymakers who cancel their trips to the country, El-Zayat added.
"We were hoping the 2016 season would be better than the weak 2015 season," Abdel Aziz said.
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 foodstuff and fulfil its international obligations.
Foreign currency reserves are almost at a critical level, standing at $16.41 billion at the end of October.
In the first eight months of this year, Egypt received 6.6 million tourists, according to the state-run statistic body CAPMAS.
Egypt's tourism revenues surged 45.3 percent to reach $7.4 billion in the fiscal year ending 30 June 2015, compared to $5.1 billion in the same period the previous year, according to the central bank.
Although street protests in Egypt have decreased over the past two years, the recovery in tourism revenues remains well below the $12.5 billion generated in the peak year of 2010 prior to the uprising that unseated long time autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
The Russian plane crash could possibly prove to be more harmful to tourism than the recent incident in which a number of Mexican tourists were killed, Abdel Aziz said. But the final impact would depend on what investigations reveal, he added.
In September, an accidental attack by Egyptian security forces killed 12 Mexicans and Egyptians, also injuring 10 people, while they were on a safari tour in the Western Desert.
"Businesses are not yet closing but they are cutting costs and reducing labour," Abdel Aziz concluded.