Increasing pressure on UK to resume flights to Sharm el-Sheikh

Sunday 27/11/2016
A passenger is seen on an EgyptAir flight before it takes off at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, on November 1st. (Reuters)

London - As the winter holidays ap­proach, Egypt’s tourist woes look set to go on as the United Kingdom continues to refuse to resume direct flights to Sharm el- Sheikh despite increasing pressure from Egyptian authorities and tour operators.

While a host of countries have re­sumed flights to the Red Sea tourist resort after a Russian plane crash in October last year, Britain and Russia — whose citizens had been among the most numerous visitors to Sharm el-Sheikh — have not done so. Egypt’s ambassador to the UK, Nasser Kamel, last week labelled Britain’s decision not to resume flights to Sharm el-Sheikh “mind-boggling”.

“When the accident happened and the UK decided to suspend flights, 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 of four months, flights would resume,” Kamel said in comments to BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme.

“Egypt has done its share. We have implemented the programme; we have brought independent secu­rity firms to assess the situation… We have contracted independent security consultants from the UK to look at what we have done and they told us that things are A-OK.

“All EU countries have resumed flights to Egypt, and the only EU country which is not flying to Sharm el-Sheikh is the UK,” the Egyptian ambassador said, calling on the British government to take action.

Asked what obstacles remain to the resumption of flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, Kamel said officials at the UK’s Department for Transport, Home Office and Foreign Office had expressed support for the resump­tion of flights to him in private. “I think the decision is stuck some­where higher. I think you should be asking that question to the prime minister,” he said.

Tour operator Thomas Cook has announced it has expanded flights to Egypt, including operating 36 flights a week to Hurghada airport. However, its position on direct flights from the UK to Sharm el- Sheikh, on the opposite side of the Gulf of Suez, remains the same.

“The safety of our customers is our primary concern. Our flight and holiday programmes are al­ways informed by the decision of the Foreign and Commonwealth Of­fice, and this includes the decision as to when UK flights can resume to Sharm el-Sheikh airport. We are looking forward to receiving clar­ity on this from the government,” a Thomas Cook spokesman said.

Britain’s Foreign and Common­wealth Office does not warn against visiting Sharm el-Sheikh itself, which is located on Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, where an Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate is known to operate. Instead it raises the question about security in and around Sharm el- Sheikh airport. “We advise against all but essential travel by air to or from Sharm el-Sheikh,” the Foreign Office advisory reads.

More than 30 travel businesses had earlier issued a joint statement calling on the UK government to is­sue clarity on when it would lift the ban on flights to Sharm el-Sheikh.

Rasha Azaizi, director of the Egyptian State Tourist Office in Lon­don, called on the UK government to make a decision before the winter holiday season during a meeting on the issue held at the House of Com­mons.

“This long-term ban on flights to Sharm el-Sheikh is now affecting many UK travel businesses as well as airlines and is causing deep con­sumer confusion. No other country apart from Russia still has a ban on flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, but the UK government has still not yet made a decision,” she said. “This gives people the impression that they can’t visit Egypt when in fact British Airways, easyJet, Thomas Cook, Thompson and EgyptAir are all already operating direct flights to other airports in Egypt,” Azaizi added.

Speaking during the World Travel Market expo in London earlier this month, Egypt’s Minister of Tourism Yehia Rashed struck a more opti­mistic tone, saying he believed the UK would reverse its decision soon.

“I personally believe it is just a matter of time before the UK gov­ernment reviews the work and in­vestment we’ve done in improving security in our airports and lifts the ban on flights to Sharm el-Sheikh,” he said.

“More than 1.5 million British visitors came to Egypt in 2010. Last year it was 870,000 and this year we expect it will be down by 70% to fewer than 300,000. But we are very confident that 2017 will be a year of growth.”