The condition of Egypt’s economy is often linked with the state of its tourism, and when it struggles so does Egypt’s ability to acquire foreign currencies in its banks. In the aftermath of the disastrous Russian plane crash in 2015, which resulted in various countries issuing flight bans, Egypt’s tourism flat-lined, turning the once bustling resort city of Sharm el Sheikh into the region’s most luxurious ghost town. However, from the start of 2017 various local and international media outlets have begun to report that Egypt’s tourism is finally on the road to recovery. Attempting to sort facts from fiction surrounding this important economic sector, we decided to head to Sharm el Sheikh to find out which countries are helping and which are harming Egypt’s tourism recovery.
The last time we visited Sharm El Sheikh was shortly after the disastrous downing of the Russian plane in 2015. Checking into our hotel felt like we were staying on the set of the iconic horror film ‘The Shining’. At the time, all hope seemed lost as tourism had yet to recover from two uprisings, let alone the wave of flight bans issued in the aftermath of the Russian plane tragedy. Under the condition of anonymity, the General Manager of one the area’s popular hotel tells us, “When the revolution happened tourism was impacted negatively for about two months. Now, since the plane crash, it's been over a year and our tourism is still a mess. Currently, we stand at about 35 percent occupancy."
In recent months, a myriad of media outlets both local and international have reported that Russian planes will resume their flights to the resort city on February 23rd. Sadly, these claims have proven to be untrue, but there have been plenty of negotiations and security protocol agreements that have taken place between both governments to indicate that a resumption of flights will take place soon. However, there are those who believe that the prolonged negotiation between Egypt and Russia could be politically driven, as Putin’s government showcases a strange double standard; Russian flights continue to Turkey even in the face of the bombing at the Istanbul Ataturk airport or the brazen assassination of their ambassador at an art opening. “You saw what happened in Turkey - did they cut off flights to there? A bomb IN the airport and destruction everywhere and yet no one’s cut flights there,” the hotel GM explains with frustration.
Before the flight bans, Sharm el Sheikh was swarming, with Russia and the UK being the biggest providers of tourists looking for a cheap year-round sunny escape. The refusal to resume flights has had a devastating impact on the area. “There are about 200 hotels in Sharm. About 100 of them had to shut down. Russia and the UK were our lifeblood. They were the bulk. And they came summer and winter, it made no difference. We won't be able to replace the Russian market because it's so bulk. When the plane crash happened, 70,000 people had to be evacuated at that time, so imagine the numbers,” explains an anonymous hotel employee.
At the heart of the issue for the UK and Russia is the question of airport security, despite endless efforts by Egypt’s government to adapt and apply the security measures while undergoing multiple inspections that have in fact acknowledged that security has improved. Speaking to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Egypt’s ambassador to the UK Nasser Kamel claims that, "We had an agreement with the British government to implement a joint action programme, under the promise that if the programme is implemented fully in three or four months, flights will resume. Egypt has done its share. We have implemented the programme, we have brought independent security firms to assess the situation.” It remains unclear why Prime Minister Teresa May feels the need to keep the ban in place especially when considering that “all EU countries have resumed flights to Egypt - including Germany, which does not take the security of its citizens lightly - and the only EU country that is not flying to Sharm el Sheikh is the UK,” Kamal tells BBC Radio4.
While the UK and Russia continue their stubborn refusal to resume flights, many hotels have been forced to shut down or remain only partially open drastically slashing prices. Coupled with November’s massive depreciation of the Egyptian pound against the dollar, Sharm El Sheikh has become one of the cheapest beach getaways in the world. Taking the most advantage of this unique economic situation is Ukraine. “The good thing about Sharm is its adaptability. We lost Russian and UK tourists, yes. But then they were replaced with Ukrainian, Lebanese - even Tunisian and Moroccan - it's cheap! And they miss the sun,” claims the hotel’s GM.
Infographic released by Hoppa.com
Aside from being cheap, those visiting point out that the lack of tourists isn’t a problem as they enjoy the calmness and the ability to relax on the beach without struggling to find a beautiful spot to bask in the sun by the sea on the normally crowded beach. This may be why representatives from 250 Ukrainian travel companies recently met with Egyptian officials in the area to discuss strategies to attract one million Ukrainian tourists to Egypt in 2017, doubling the 425,000 tourists that visited in 2016, as reported by Egypt Independent.It may be tough to attract enough Ukrainians to offset the loss of tourists from Russia and UK, but in the opinion of Egypt’s former antiquities minister, Zahi Hawass, these are not the kind of tourists Egypt should focus on attracting. “You do not think about tourism from Russia; this is cheap tourism. You have to think about the Japanese, the Chinese, the Americans. We don't need the numbers, we need the people who can really increase our economy by paying, not by coming to Egypt for 500 euros and staying for 10 days,” explains the former minister.
Egypt as a tourism destination is unique, as it can please tourists looking for a cheap beach while attracting a different set of tourists who are fascinated with exploring the country’s ancient cultural history. While Europeans seem more interested in finding a sunny beach, a noticeable influx of Asian tourists started flocking to Cairo, Luxor and Aswan. China’s top public travel agency, China International Travel Service, reported a 58 percent increase in tourists flying to Egypt compared to 2015, while Japan’s HIS travel agency said the number of tourists heading to Egypt “multiplied by four to five times” last year. The boom in Asian interest may be a result of the United Nation’s World Tourism Organization's decision to name Luxor the world’s tourism capital of 2016. Also inspiring hope for a recovery in 2017 are the claims by Egyptian Federation Tourism Chief, Karim Mohsen, that “there are more bookings between October 2016 and January 2017 than last year.”
Looking to build on this momentum, President Al Sisi recently met with UNESCO’s Director-General Irina Bokova announcing his intentions to build more museums to preserve Egypt’s rich heritage. Considering that Egypt just opened their National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation, restored the Islamic Museum after being damaged by an explosion, and received $420 million from Japan to complete the long awaited Grand Museum in the shadow of the pyramids, it appears that President Sisi is well on his way to fulfilling this promise.
There’s still a long road to travel before Egypt reaches the $11 billion made from the 14.7 million tourists who came in 2010, but with the world resuming flights to Egypt and countries like Ukraine, Japan, and China seizing on the affordability brought on by the free floating Egyptian Pound, there are plenty of indicators to suggest tourism will bounce back in 2017 with or without the UK and Russian tourists. It’s understandable that these governments would try to do everything to protect their citizens, but in the age of terror, 24-hours news coverage, and governments playing politics to leverage deals, tourists know the risks and should have the freedom to go wherever they want instead of being treated like political pawns.
Photography: Farah Hosny