Egypt tries to lure Israelis back to the Sinai

Egypt tries to lure Israelis back to the Sinai

Once a prime vacation destination, revolution, terrorism and lawlessness now keep tourists away from Peninsula's pristine beaches

The Taba border crossing between Israel and Egypt (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
The Taba border crossing between Israel and Egypt (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

There were days when an “Arab Spring” for Israelis meant Passover vacations on the white beaches of the Sinai, but since the 2011 revolution that saw the ouster of Hosni Mubarak and the ascendance of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to power, it is mostly the reckless who still go there.

Egypt wants to change that — starting with Arab-Israelis.

Channel 2 news accompanied a group of Israeli travel agents who were invited by Egyptian tourism operators to tour the restive peninsula, in hopes of reversing the trend and bringing Israelis and their shekels back to the luxury resort towns of Taba and Sharm el Sheikh.

The pristine sandy beaches appear as inviting as they ever were and the hotel employees, shopkeepers and street vendors talk nostalgically of the days when Hebrew could be heard at every other table. Even the prices seem to have frozen, with a night at an all-inclusive hotel costing between $60-120, less than half the price in places like Eilat or the Dead Sea.

“This was my first visit to Sharm el Sheikh, and to the Sinai in general,” said Ben, a travel agent from Tirat HaCarmel. “So far, I’ve had a great time. It’s really beautiful here.”

Egypt is aware that Israel has imposed a severe travel warning discouraging Israelis from traveling to the peninsula, most recently on Friday when the Counter-Terrorism Bureau reiterated the threat ahead of the Passover holiday. The peninsula has seen a period of lawlessness following the revolution, highlighted by kidnappings of Westerners and terror attacks against Egyptian and international security forces. For that reason, its tourism officials are trying to start by luring the Arab-Israeli population, a public perhaps less likely to heed the strict warning.

“I call on our beloved Arab-Israeli brothers to come and honor us with their presence,” said Mohammed Hamdi, a Cairo-based travel agent. “As you can see, the security here is good, Allah be praised.”

The Sinai was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day-War and returned to Egypt in 1982. In the years that followed, Israelis always stubbornly returned to the region, even after being targeted in multiple terror attacks. In the past decade alone, 12 Israelis were killed in a coordinated terrorist attack on Taba’s Hilton hotel and the beach resort of Ras al-Shitan in 2004; Israelis were also targeted in attacks on Sharm el Sheikh,  and Dahab in 2005 and 2006. They still kept coming to the Sinai.

But more recently, since the revolution, it seems that Israeli tourists are more concerned than they used to be by the dangers prevalent in the neighbor to the south.

And Israelis aren’t the only ones to be wary of travel to the Egyptian version of the wild, wild west. In the two years since the revolution, tourism has tapered off significantly, with fewer and fewer Europeans arriving. Today, the majority of tourists are Egyptians from Cairo and Alexandria.

Continued turmoil in Egypt has scared away both tourists and foreign investors, pushing down foreign currency reserves to less than $14 billion and forcing Cairo to turn to oil-rich Gulf states for loans and handouts.

Many in the industry also fear ruling Islamists will start banning alcohol or swimsuits on beaches — changes that they fear will drive tourists away altogether.

Nader Bakkar, a spokesman for the ultraconservative Salafi Nour Party, told a conference of tour guides in Aswan in December that tourists should not be allowed to buy alcohol, but could bring it with them and drink it in their rooms. Tourists should also be encouraged to wear conservative dress, he said.

“We welcome all tourists but we tell them … there are traditions and beliefs in the country, so respect them,” he said. “Most tourists will have no problem if you tell them to bring their own alcohol.”

According to the Channel 2 report, the Islamist influence has yet to be felt in the Sinai, where nightclubs and bars continue to be built despite being frowned upon by conservative Muslims. The reporter pointed to the exercise of freedom of speech as witnessed by the defacing of posters of President Mohammed Morsi, an act, he said, that wouldn’t have been tolerated under the rule of Mubarak.

“I don’t feel afraid here at all,” said Yossi, one of the Israeli travel agents on the tour. “I call on all Israelis to come and enjoy the charms of Sharm el Sheikh.”

Israelis enjoy the surf and sun at a Sinai beach resort in 2006 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Israelis enjoy the surf and sun at a Sinai beach resort in 2006 (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

On the way back from the luxury hotels in the major cities, the tour bus stopped at a ramshackle beach resort — of the kind once so popular among the thrifty younger Israeli tourists — and found it completely vacant and neglected.

Where vacationing students once played backgammon for hours and haggled with young Bedouin girls over the price of handmade bracelets, nothing remained. The proprietor reportedly left shortly after the last Israeli tourists stopped coming.

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