Tourists still charmed by Egypt’s ‘Sharm’
Cairo - There is an irresistible attraction under the clear waters of Egypt’s main Red Sea resort city of Sharm el- Sheikh that draws tourists and beach lovers to the prime vacation spot in the southern part of the Sinai peninsula.
Mesmerised by the view of the turquoise waters and endless stretches of white sandy beaches, visitors fill Sharm el-Sheikh’s hotels, cafés, nightclubs and beaches, defying Egypt’s scorching heat and fears of terrorist attacks that have gripped north Sinai in the past months.
“Sharm el-Sheikh is finally returning to its former nature of being an attraction to all tourists,” Ahmed Hamam, a 30-year-old hotel worker, said. “My hotel is almost full these days.”
Sharm el-Sheikh, which rose to fame almost two decades ago, having served as the venue of top international events, continues to act as a magnet for tourists and now people who are the least scared or intimidated by boiling confrontations in the nearby North Sinai province between the Egyptian Army and militants affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS).
So far, the city has been shielded from militant activities thanks to intensified security measures taken by the government. In addition to tightened security, attractive packages offered by tour operators, hotel companies and water sports organisers are credited for the surge in hotel occupancy.
According to a senior tourism official from South Sinai province, Sharm el-Sheikh hotels were 80% full in the first week of August.
Tour operators are competing to attract the biggest number of clients with some offering a three-night, four-day stay in four-star hotels for $184 with others offering the same package for $138. A third category of tour operators is seeking to beat them all by adding transport and water sports activities to the same package for as little as $100.
Hotels, bars and entertainment centres are also offering affordable packages, drawing new tourists to the top Egyptian resort, which in the past could only be afforded by Egypt’s rich and foreigners.
Mahmoud al-Bukhari, who works for a water sports and diving company, said the firm has been offering unbeatable prices to attract divers from every part of the world to Sharm el-Sheikh’s famous house reef.
“Tourists are actually coming back and in large numbers,” Bukhari said. “We have been receiving more and more bookings every day.”
The company offers one-day boat trips to the Ras Mohamed, one of the world’s most spectacular coral reefs, for about $70. Other companies have cheaper offers to the same site.
Ras Mohamed National Park at the tip of Sinai is an easy, popular dive and a snorkelers’ paradise, rich with exotic underwater flora and rare, colourful tropical fish.
Sharm el-Sheikh, for long a popular winter-break destination for Europeans, has been recently attracting more Arab tourists, in addition to Egyptians who are increasingly able to afford the sojourn, according to tourism expert Mohamed Salah Attia. “The tourists filling the city these days are not the type of tourists who visited it months ago,” Attia said. He said European tourists usually avoid the hot summer weather, unlike Arab visitors who are more used to high temperatures.
Other tourism experts pin the decline in the number of European tourists to several factors, including the devaluation of the Russian currency, the financial crisis in Greece and deteriorating economic conditions across Europe.
Almost 80% of Egypt’s tourists came from Russia and Europe, while Arabs made up 16% (1.7 million) of the number of tourists visiting Egypt in 2014, according to the state-run Tourism Promotion Authority.
Egypt’s success in attracting Arab tourists is attributed to a campaign launched by the government months ago. Under the slogan “Egypt is Near”, the campaign aimed to attract Arab visitors, capitalising on improving relations between Egypt and Gulf Arab states.
Egypt’s tourism sector was hard hit by political and security turmoil in the wake of the January 2011 uprising. The tourism sector has started to see what Tourism Minister Khaled Ramy recently described as a “boom”.
Tourism revenues rose 3.1%, reaching $3.3 billion in the first half of 2015, compared with the corresponding period in 2014, while the total number of tourists increased 8.2%, Ramy said.
Egypt hopes to raise its overall tourism revenues to $9 billion in 2015 by attracting 12 million tourists.
Sharm el-Sheikh is the pride of Egypt’s beach and water sports tourism. Even with the soaring heat, palm tree leaves flutter, while the colourful lights of restaurants, hotels and lively bars confer an exciting touch. Meanwhile, Hamam’s hotel is bringing back some employees who were laid off in the past three years. “We are also getting our salaries regularly, once again,” Hamam said.
Sharm el-Sheikh continues to be immune from North Sinai’s turmoil. Terrorism hit nearest to Sharm el- Sheikh in mid-February 2014, when a bus carrying South Korean tourists in the Red Sea resort town of Taba, about 200 kilometres from Sharm el-Sheik, was bombed.
Three tourists were killed along with the Egyptian bus driver.
However, the test is to come in October, when Western tourists traditionally travel to Sharm el-Sheikh as weather conditions become more tolerable. “Only then we can really judge whether the turmoil in North Sinai has affected tourists flow to Sharm el-Sheikh,” Attia said.