Prospect of Russian tourist return brings hope to Egypt’s resorts
Cairo - The only sounds in Egypt’s Red Sea resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada are the clanking of washing and cleaning machines and the clatter of painting and decoration equipment inside hotel rooms.
Workers go in and out of the hotels, carrying supplies. Some of the hotels are getting new furniture and others new paint to distinguish themselves in an atmosphere full of hope.
“We have renewed the hotel from beginning to end,” said Kamel Abu Ali, the owner of Hurghada’s 5-star Dana Beach hotel. “We have spent millions of pounds on this.”
Abu Ali, whose hotel has been ranked one of the world’s top ten several times in the past, said he is part of an optimistic mood wafting through the Red Sea resorts following news of the potential return of tourists, especially from Russia.
The resorts suffered tough times in 2016, following a series of flight suspensions after the bombing of a Russian passenger plane over the Sinai peninsula in November 2015.
The bombing, which was claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS), killed all 224 passengers and crew members on board and resulted in the total paralysis of Egypt’s tourism sector. Hotel occupancy dipped to its lowest level, tourist sites were deserted and some tourist facilities were shuttered.
In 2016, Egypt received 4.8 million tourists, down from 8.9 million in 2015. There was a 44% decline — to $3.4 billion — in tourism revenues in 2016, compared to the year before, the government said.
This marked an economic disaster for Egypt where close to 4 million Egyptians are directly employed in the tourism sector. Last year, 1.5 million tourism workers lost their jobs.
The backlash from the Russian plane bombing and flight suspensions uncovered vulnerabilities in the Egyptian economy. Egypt had to float its national currency, get a loan from the International Monetary Fund and slash fuel, electricity and water subsidies.
There is hope, however, with Russia declaring that it may soon remove its flight suspension order to Egypt’s Red Sea resorts.
“Everybody in the tourism sector is waiting on tenterhooks for the return of the Russian tourists,” said Adel Abdel Razik, a member of the board of the Federation of Tourist Chambers, the independent guild of tourism investors and tour operators. “The tourism sector takes this expected decision very seriously by preparing well for its application.”
Some countries have lifted travel suspensions to Red Sea resorts, among them Germany, from where close to 2 million tourists used to visit Egypt every year.
Egyptian authorities have spent hundreds of millions of dollars revolutionising security systems at airports, installing special cameras and detection equipment and changing all security procedures inside terminals.
The government, which said it expects Russian flights to resume to the Red Sea resorts by early March, says the flights will resume after it signs an agreement on airport security with Moscow.
Some 3 million Russia tourists a year used to visit Egypt. Tourism experts said lifting of the Russian flight suspension would cause a domino effect and other suspensions would also end.
In Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada, people are preparing for the resumption of flights. Some laid off workers will get the opportunity to return to work.
Karim Ahmed, who was a diving trainer in Hurghada, lost his job soon after the Russian flight suspension. He returned to his family home in Cairo and worked as a taxi driver.
“Losing my job devastated me financially,” said Ahmed, who is in his early 40s. “As a diving trainer, I used to earn a lot more than I do now.”
Ahmed said he was recently contacted by his former employer who asked him to get ready to return to work. Hundreds of hotels, restaurants, diving centres, cafés and tourist facilities are making similar preparations.
The Central Bank of Egypt has offered tourism investors long-term, low-interest loans, which have helped some update facilities as they prepare for the return of tourists.
Abu Ali said he has redone almost everything in his hotel: the tiles, the paint, the furniture, the TV sets and decor.
“There is a new spirit everywhere on optimism that the tourist movement can go back to normal soon,” Abu Ali said. “Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh turned into ghost towns in 2016 but we have hopes that life can be blown into them yet again.”