Egypt's Red Sea resorts hope for return of tourists

By Jackie Storer
BBC News, Sharm el-Sheikh

Image source, (C) British Broadcasting Corporation
Image caption,
Locals say some market workers have not been able to pay their rent as tourists bypass the resort

Egypt's revolution has cost its tourism industry an estimated $2.5bn (£1.6bn) in lost revenue, which has taken its toll on popular resorts like Sharm el-Sheikh. But eight months on, the country says it is ready to fight back.

Sharm el-Sheikh's Old Market is usually alive with tourists, lured in by stall holders offering cheap souvenirs, hand-woven rugs, embroidery and belly-dancing outfits.

But since the revolution that centred on Cairo's Tahrir Square, some 520km away (323 miles), visitors to the bazaar and other places in the popular Red Sea resort have been rather thin on the ground.

During the 18 days of pro-democracy protests earlier this year, countries including Russia and Italy restricted flights into Egypt, while many others advised their nationals to avoid the area altogether. UK airlines British Airways and Jet2 suspended their services to Sharm el-Sheikh, causing other carriers to put up their prices.

As a result, Egypt's thriving tourism industry, which makes up 11.4% of its GDP and accounts for 10% of jobs, has been badly hit. Last year, Egypt raked in $12.53bn from tourism. This year, the figure looks closer to $10bn.

Tourism minister Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour says he will "not spare a minute or a penny to get tourism back on track". Egpyt plans to invest an estimated $12bn in tourism over the next five years.

"We're doing everything from advertising, subsidising operators, inviting people from overseas to come and see for themselves the possibilities. We are standing behind investors - everything in the book," he said.

But Mr Abdel Nour knows he faces an uphill task.

Shark attacks

Despite Sharm el-Sheikh being so far away from the epicentre of the uprisings in Cairo, the impact on the resort is palpable, with tourist shops boarded up, restaurants closed and a general lack of people.

The former Bedouin settlement on the edge of the Sinai Desert usually attracts three million visitors a year because of its year-round sunshine, sandy beaches, exotic fish, spectacular corals and blue sea.

But a series of shark attacks off Sharm el-Sheikh which seriously injured four swimmers and claimed the life a German tourist at the end of last year have added to the resort's woes.

Alun Evans, the Welsh owner of Elite Diving in the town - who was injured in the 2005 terrorist attacks on Sharm el-Sheikh - said: "In February it was even quieter here than it was after the bombings."

Mr Evans, 55, said: "Immediately after the revolution there were no Russians here, because there were no Russian flights coming in. The Italians were almost negligible. Brits were the only ones we saw walking around and that was because the Foreign Office said Sharm was safe.

"We've seen hotels closing and dive centres - whose clients are mostly Russian or Italian - shutting temporarily because they didn't have enough divers. Some still haven't reopened.

"We are lucky because almost all of our clients are British. People did ask about the situation in Sharm, having seen what was happening in Cairo, but we reassured them that it was business as usual.

"Personally, I think you're as safe here as you are anywhere else in the world," he added.

'No obvious danger'

Abdel Rahman, an Egyptian tour guide, said the revolution had caused more problems for business than any shark attack ever could. "The political unrest has hit tourism very hard, with many people losing their jobs or seeing their salaries cut by 50%," he said.

"I've heard of visitors changing their minds about coming here to go to 'quieter' places like Turkey and Thailand. This has meant hotels have had to close for a while and market workers not being able to pay their rent. It has affected our families in other parts of Egypt too, because many of us send money home."

But Steve Brauner, 50, from Liverpool, who owns an apartment in Nabq, on the outskirts of Sharm, said he had seen nothing to put him and his wife and daughter off staying there.

"There is no obvious danger here at all," said Mr Brauner, group editor of Lancaster and Morecambe Newspapers. "None of our friends have sold up and left as a result of the revolution - most people see it as a positive move.

"All we've noticed is how very quiet it's been. There was a celebration in the Old Market when President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, with people driving along waving flags, hooting horns and hanging out of the windows cheering, but that was it."

And it is that safety issue that Mr Abdel Nour is keen to hammer home. He argues that even at the height of the protests "not a single attack was perpetrated against tourists".

"Egypt is not only Tahrir Square. It's a big country and loves tourists under any circumstances," he said.

And it is that message Egypt hopes will bring the holiday-makers back.

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