Sinai tourism remains resilient

Daily News Egypt
10 Min Read

TABA: The year 2007 has so far been a quiet year in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where tourists from Egypt, the Middle East, and the West flock to swim, snorkel, and bask in the Red Sea sun.

In hotels and beach resorts from Sharm El-Sheikh up the east coast to Taba, holidaymakers have been enjoying the Sinai’s rich ecological attractions in relative serenity – seemingly unconcerned for their own personal safety.

But over the last three years, such tranquility has become the exception rather than the norm in this holiday hotspot. Indeed 2007 has been the longest sustained period of peace in the Sinai since October 7, 2004 when a truck filled with explosives rammed into the lobby of the Hilton Taba Resort.

The Hilton Hotel bombing marked the first in a series of terror attacks over the following three years, targeting holidaymakers and injuring Egypt’s tourist industry. On July 23, 2005 three bombs tore through two hotels and a market in Sharm El-Sheikh killing 88 individuals.

Almost exactly nine months later, on April 24, 2006 three more bombs exploded in the resort city of Dahab, killing an additional 23 people.

With a total casualty count of 145, the three sets of attacks marked the two and a half years between October 2004 and April 2006 as one of the most violent periods in Egypt’s recent history.

It was speculated at the time of these attacks that part of their objective, besides the targeting of Western or Israeli tourists, was to cripple the Sinai’s steadily growing tourism industry and damage the region’s local economy. Initial reactions to the blasts were far from optimistic-with experts forecasting a mass exodus of tourists from Sinai’s shores.

And yet, a year and a quarter following the most recent attacks in Dahab, the Sinai’s hotels and beach camps hardly resemble the ghost towns that had been predicted. In fact, defying the morbid expectations of ministries and press agencies, the tourist establishments that line the coast from Taba to Sharm El-Sheikh are undergoing a healthy revival.

Directly following each of the attacks, there was a distinct downturn in the numbers of tourists, especially from abroad. Thankfully, these declines were not permanent, and business picked up almost as soon as it had fallen.

“There was an immediate drop said Ziad Tantawi, the general manager of the Hilton Taba Resort. “But the rebound was almost as fast. We aren’t concerned for the long-run health of the tourism industry here.

Tantawi was hired as general manager of the resort in 2004, immediately after the bomb had destroyed the main lobby and led to the collapse of an entire wing of the hotel. He has been responsible for overseeing the reconstruction and renovation of the resort, preparing for its reopening in December 2006.

He said that business has been steady ever since the hotel reopened.

“Part of what has contributed to the hotel’s recent success, he added, “has been a shift in the kinds of tourists we are targeting, away from Israelis and towards the European markets. Before there was a singular reliance – one hotel, one market – but now we have diversified. It has helped us to maintain steady business and compensate for the decline in Israeli tourists.

He told The Daily Star Egypt that the hotel had been working closely with the Hilton Hotels Corporation to promote Taba as a destination for new markets, in Western and Eastern Europe.

The resort has also been working with Taba’s new international airport to bring in more charter flights from European destinations. Last year, for example, saw the first weekly flights coming from Poland and the Czech Republic, and this year the hotel has helped to secure a weekly flight from Ukraine.

“Before the hotel’s guests were maybe 80 or 90 percent Israeli. Now it’s closer to 35 percent, he said.

He hopes that the new Europeans visiting the resort will be supplemented by growing numbers of local Egyptians coming to vacation in Taba. “We are trying to market ourselves and spread awareness of Taba as a vacation destination for Egyptians as well as foreigners.

The idea of catering to a diverse body of tourists is one that was echoed among establishments throughout the Sinai.

“We make a point not to rely on Israelis for business, said the bar manager of the Castle Zaman Pool and Bar, who gave her name as Lucy. “We don’t like to rely on anyone, for that matter. We try to market ourselves to all kinds of tourists visiting the Sinai, and so far haven’t had a problem.

Mohammad Ahmed Fathi, the assistant manager of the Basata beach camp, echoed this sentiment, saying also that a crucial element to the success of his camp has been the loyalty of his customer base.

“These people come regardless of bombs, he told The Daily Star Egypt. “We have lots of people coming back for their fourth or fifth visit – they know Basata isn’t unsafe.

As a result of this solid customer base, he said, the Basata camp made it through the bombings without “much of a downturn at all.

The story was not as rosy, however, for some of the other camps neighboring Basata, whose tourist markets were more focused on Israelis. “The camps that relied on Israelis were hit hard, and some totally shut down, he said.

Jean Samy owns a small tourist shop just off the Hilton Taba Resort’s main lobby. He was there the day that the bomb exploded, a stone’s throw away from his shop.

“We were all hurt then. Small resorts had to close and lots of people were leaving the area, he said. Samy was forced to close his shop at the time, and moved to Sharm El-Sheikh for two years were he helped run a friend’s shop. He moved back to Taba when the hotel reopened.

“Business is not like it was before the bombings, he told The Daily Star Egypt. “We haven’t been getting as many customers, but slowly and steadily things are getting better.

Recovery, whether gradual or immediate, pervades the tourist establishments that line the coast, and the attitude among the owners, managers, and employees is distinctly optimistic.

According to Ministry of Tourism spokesperson, Hala El Khatib, there was a 2 percent decline in tourist bookings in Dahab following the 2006 bombing. Two months later, business was back to normal, and has since increased by an additional 6 percent.

“The bounce back following these attacks was very fast, Tantawi said. “It took only a matter of months. I think it has to do with the fact that Egypt has become more resilient to terrorism, for better or for worse. It isn’t like it was in the 1990s. Tantawi insists that business at the Hilton Taba is better than it was in 2004 and that he expects it to grow further.

May Mukhtar, a spokesperson from the Egyptian Tourism Federation, attributed the quick recovery to a slightly different cause. “The attacks of 2004, 2005, and 2006 didn’t have a very lasting or powerful effect on the region, primarily because they were part of a global phenomenon, she told The Daily Star Egypt. “When places all over the world are being targeted, people don’t think of Egypt as any more dangerous than Spain or London or wherever.

El Khatib agrees, saying, “Figures have shown that tourism in Egypt is very resilient. These kinds of attacks are happening all over the world now. Why should people stop visiting Egypt over any where else?

Whatever the reason, the message from the Sinai is clear: Tourism is back on track.

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