Arab Israelis attracted to southern Sinai by inexpensive deals, common culture

Arab Israelis are often drawn to Sinai because of the opportunity to partake in situations close to their cultural roots.
Sunday 02/09/2018
Tourists ride camels on the shores of the town of Dahab, in Egypt’s southern Sinai Peninsula.(AFP)
Tourists ride camels on the shores of the town of Dahab, in Egypt’s southern Sinai Peninsula.(AFP)

DAHAB - For international tourists, the cities of southern Sinai have a particular charm with their unique natural attractions, colourful coral reefs and intriguing ancient religious sites.

Southern Sinai has been a favourite holiday destination for Europeans, particularly Italian and German tourists, and for Russians, as well. Nearly three years ago, however, Russia stopped its tourist flow to Sinai following the terrorist downing of a Russian passenger plane over the Sinai. Today, a new wave of tourists is visiting the southern coasts of Sinai.

Large numbers of Arab holidaymakers are crossing the Egyptian-Israeli border and making their way to Sharm el-Sheikh, Dahab and Taba. Tourism with Israel started with the signing of the 1979 peace accords but Sinai has recently seen an unprecedented increase in tourists from Israel of Arab origin.

Yathrib Mahmud, a housewife from Al-Nasirah in Israel who made the 9-hour journey by car to Sinai with her family, said: “For many Palestinian families, the overland journey to Sinai has become a definite alternative for vacationing in tourist destinations inside Israel.”

She said the trip and border crossing have become easy and safe, which has encouraged many Israeli Arabs to go to Sinai for its special charm and the warmth of its people.

Other reasons for the increasing numbers of Arab-Israeli tourists in Sinai include the low cost of hotels and resorts compared to their counterparts in Israeli destinations. The fall of the Egyptian currency and inexpensive deals offered in Egypt also attracted Israeli tourists.

The usual factors encouraging tourists from Israel to go to Sinai are still valid. The Camp David Accords eliminated the need for visas for Israelis entering Sinai and Egyptian authorities have made special efforts to secure southern Sinai, which helped draw international conferences and events to the area.

Arab Israelis are often drawn to Sinai because of the opportunity to partake in situations close to their cultural roots. Direct contact with Arabs who speak their dialect and share their tastes and traditions allow Palestinians of the pre-1948 generation and their descendants to ease feelings of cultural alienation experienced inside Israel.

Mahmud likened the “Arabs of ’48,” as Palestinians of the pre-1948 generation are often described, to “seekers of a lost identity that was kidnapped from the days of their Arab ancestors by the creation of the state of Israel.”

“There is nothing more beautiful than the sight of our children playing with the Egyptians. They will realise that they are still Arabs and belong to a big country despite the sufferings of occupation,” Mahmud added.

Saly Nadhir, an 18-year-old Palestinian woman from occupied Jerusalem on her first visit to Dahab with her family, said: “Egypt has a tremendous treasure trove of coral reefs, definitely worth exploring.”

Nadhir, who had previously been to Sharm el-Sheikh, said going to southern Sinai for holidays has become a habit for many Arab “48ers.” She mentioned she had visited all the cities in southern Sinai but has yet to go to Cairo. Travelling to Cairo requires a visa and dealing with complicated procedures.

For tourism operators in Sinai, the influx of the Arab “48ers” compensated to some extent for the deficit in tourism revenues Egypt saw following previous acts of terrorism. Adel Bakri, a hotel employee in Dahab, said tourism from Israel was on the rise during the past few months after a sharp decline following the January 2011 revolution in Egypt.

Bakri said many foreigners did not distinguish between northern Sinai, where most of the terrorist acts had taken place, and southern Sinai, where security and safety prevail. Bakri said the influx of Palestinians from the occupied territories has helped local tourism even though the visitors are officially listed as tourists from Israel.

Recent data from the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism indicate that about 234,000 tourists visited Egypt from Israel in 2017. That number stands to rise by 30% by the end of the current year, officials said.

Tourists take pictures in front of Al Sahaba Mosque at a popular tourist area named “Old Market” in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.(Reuters)
A restaurant waiter waits for customers in southern Sinai.(Reuters)