NUWEIBA, Egypt — The tinny warning that echoes across the last few meters of Israeli territory before the Taba border crossing with Egypt plays on a never-ending loop: the same dire alert about “concrete terrorism threats” over and over, drowned out by excited families dragging strollers and suitcases.
Tourism in the Sinai Peninsula has always ebbed and flowed with the regional political situation. But the past five years have been especially lean for tourism, starting with the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, which ushered in a period of lawlessness in northeast Sinai, to the October 31, 2015 downing of a Russian plane, which killed all 224 people aboard — an attack that was claimed by the Islamic State.
Very little has changed externally in the security or political situation over the past few months. But despite that, there has been a subtle shift in the Israeli consciousness regarding weekend escapes to the southern neighbor, and the Bedouin beach-side huts are once again starting to fill with the sounds of Israelis ordering guava juice.
According to the Population and Immigration Border Authority, just 134,455 Israelis entered Egypt through the Taba Border Crossing last year. This was down about 50% from 261,313 in 2005 and more than 400,000 in 2004. But in the first half of 2016, more than 96,000 Israelis had crossed the border, on track to reach the 2010 pre-revolution levels.
So if Sinai is still the same lawless wasteland portrayed in media reports, why are Israelis returning?
The sound of silence
Once you arrive in the Sinai, you almost effortlessly slip into the rhythm of the desert: waking at sunrise, just moments before the sun peaks over the mountains, and diving into the water just as the sun rises above the summits. At night Bedouins from nearby villages come to play, only half to entertain the guests, but mostly to jam among themselves, strumming traditional love songs as they stretch out beneath the stars.
If I had to choose a color for Sinai, it would be purple. There’s an hour, just after the sun slips behind the Egyptian mountains, when the Saudi Arabian mountains slink from brown to a majestic purple to inky black as the day flees from the horizon.
In the afternoon the winds cease and the sea is flat and undisturbed, reflecting this magical purple of the mountains, the water itself turning shades of violet. The heavy salinity of the Gulf of Aqaba makes floating effortless, enveloping you in vibrant color as you lay on your back. Purple jellyfish, which for some reason don’t have stingers, bump against you playfully, like baseball-sized hunks of harmless jello, graceful and unthreatening. The silence rolls like a blanket across the water as day glides into night.
“Sinai, she has something for the soul,” said Salem Alsakhn, 44, the Bedouin owner of Big Dune Camp, a popular beach with Israelis near the town of Nuweiba, about an hour-and-a-half drive south of Eilat.
“You won’t find it anywhere else in the Gulf of Aqaba,” he added. “The beauty of nature and the souls of the Bedouins affect this area. There’s something, people feel it, there’s something special. This is a holy place from God. It’s a special atmosphere that you can only know when you experience it.”
Despite the security situation over the past six years, many Israeli Arabs continued to flock to the peninsula with their families, and they still make up most of the traffic at the border control these days. The majority of Israeli Arabs go to hotels in the cities of Taba, Dahab, or Sharm El Sheikh, though their numbers have also dipped. Hardest hit over the past five years were the Bedouin-run simple straw huts on the beach, popular with Jewish Israelis. They stayed away from Sinai in droves.
“In Sinai, there’s nothing [for employment], no factories,” said Salman Areb, 38, the accountant and kitchen manager at the Big Dune Camp, who is Alsakhn’s cousin. “If there’s tourists, there’s work. No tourists, no work.”
Since the Big Dune Camp attracts a largely Israeli clientele, the camp was mostly empty for the past five years. Camps on either side of them shuttered their doors, and today, the empty beach huts lean listlessly to the side.
“Usually people don’t open if there’s no tourism,” said Alsakhn. “But my family is here more than 30 years. This is our life, this is our livelihood. If people are here, we’re here. If no one is here, we’re also here.”
Almost all of the staff at Big Dune Camp speak perfect Hebrew. The older ones learned some of their Hebrew in school, when Israel ruled over Sinai from 1967 to 1982. Others have perfected the language through dealings with tourists.
What did they do during the five years with no work? “Beten, gav, beten, gav,” said Areb, using the popular Israeli expression “stomach, back, stomach, back” referring to a vacation when you spend most of your time lying in the sun. “Sometimes we’d go out and fish.”
“In May, people started coming again,” he said, despite specific warnings not to travel in Sinai released ahead of the Passover holiday. “A few Israelis came, there were just four or five of them, then they’d go back and tell everyone, ‘Really, it’s fine.’”
“Lots of people are still afraid,” he added. “The kids come and they don’t tell their parents because of everything they hear on the news. But not everything is true.” [note: Guilty as charged. I had told my parents I was going camping at a Bedouin camp “down south” and only informed them how far south I had actually been when I was on the bus back from Eilat to Tel Aviv.]
Alsakhn also believes that Israelis are finally starting to appreciate just how big Sinai truly is. There are just a few roads that lead from north Sinai to south Sinai, and those are heavily guarded. “South Sinai isn’t connected to the mess in north Sinai,” he said, in reference to the spate of terror attacks and general terror activity in that area. “The tribes here are trying to protect tourism.”
By word of mouth
One of the people who is responsible for spreading the gospel of Sinai to newbies is Guy Shilo, a 44-year-old lawyer who has crisscrossed the Sinai for decades, on his own and as a tour guide, sometimes making up to 10 trips in a year. Shilo currently runs a Facebook group called “Sinai Lovers” where Israelis trade tips and information, or ask questions that all seem to be some variation of “is it really safe now?”
“People are tired of the narrative that Sinai is dangerous,” said Shilo. “It’s been so exaggerated in the media in the last years. The new generation is different. They see the media differently. The old generation believed the media, they took it as Torah from Sinai,” Shilo said with a straight face. “But new media, like social media, is starting to make the distinction between north Sinai and south Sinai, that Sinai isn’t just one big space.”
He noted that Israelis especially should be adept at parsing the media hysteria portraying the entire Sinai as a no-go zone. Israelis have plenty of experience with understanding that when the sirens blare in Sderot, it doesn’t mean that people in Netanya rush for the bomb shelter. Yet abroad, people watch the news and assume that all of Israel is a warzone.
The Sinai Lovers Facebook group started in April 2015 with about 20 people, but has now grown to more than 4,000 members, with about 50 people joining each day in order to get information, said Shiloh.
Shiloh has been traveling to Sinai since he was four years old, when he and his mother went to visit his father, who was doing reserve duty when Sinai was under Israeli control. “[Dahab] was totally empty, just a beach with date palms,” Shiloh said, marveling that now Dahab is a 40-kilometer stretch of hotel development and a paved seaside promenade.
Over the years, Shiloh has watched the Sinai change. “In 1995, there were five scuba places in Dahab [home to the Blue Hole, one of the top dive sites in the world], but by 2000, there were more than 70,” he said. When Israelis stopped coming to Sinai during the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, Russians and Europeans discovered the turquoise water and desert silence, and now account for a much larger part of Sinai tourism than Israelis.
Shiloh kept traveling to Sinai, even during politically tense times, like in 2001, in the midst of the Second Intifada, when he spent 10 days in Sinai and met only two other Israelis. He passed through the border crossing the day before the October 31, 2004 bombings in Taba and Ras Sheitan, when 32 people were killed, including 12 Israelis.
“After the terror attack, in one fell swoop Israelis stopped coming,” said Shiloh. “I kept coming. Sinai had already become my home.”
What keeps bringing him back, even when few Israelis venture there?
“You feel it above and below the water, it’s the energy of the place,” he said. “Everyone talks about the energy there. Maybe it’s the open spaces – on one side there’s these solid, barren mountains, and on the other side are oases and blue water.”
Terror in paradise
“I would definitely not advise my family and friends to go to Sinai,” said Ron Gilran, the COO of Levantine Group, a Tel-Aviv based risk consultancy, which tracks political and terror developments in the region. Gilran closely follows Wilayat Sinai, a terrorist group whose name means “The Sinai Province.” The group pledged allegiance to the Islamic State at the end of 2014. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the downing of the Russian plane, as well as a number of other terror attacks in the area.
Currently, the vast majority of Wilayat Sinai activity is in the northeastern tip of Sinai, in the area around the Rafah crossing to Gaza, and the cities of el-Arish and Sheikh Suweid. This area is about 400 kilometers from the south Sinai beaches, on poorly maintained and mountainous desert roads.
Since the fall of Mubarak, Wilayat Sinai, previously known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem) before aligning with the Islamic State, has been engaged in a drawn-out war with the Egyptian security forces. These clashes have resulted in at least one Egyptian military death per day from sniper attacks and IED explosives placed at Egyptian military or police roadblocks, Gilran said.
“I don’t see a day in the next few years when there won’t be daily terror attacks in the Sinai,” he added. “Like Israel, they have been able to tamp down terror in terms of the deadliness and sophistication, but it’s hard to say [if there will be a change] just because of a few quiet months.”
Gilran noted that because of increased military operations against the terror group after the downing of the plane, however, their ability to carry out large-scale terror attacks outside of their stronghold in northeastern Sinai has been heavily compromised.
Just a week before I left for Sinai, the Egyptian Army announced that it killed a central leader of the Islamic State affiliate in the Sinai Peninsula, along with more than 40 of its fighters, during airstrikes on el-Arish.
This has been a typical pattern over the past few months. There have also been reports of Israeli security cooperation with Egypt, including rumors of Israeli drones targeting the terror group’s leaders.
Gilran said the threat of large-scale terror attacks has declined as a result of these military actions, by decreasing the number of terrorists in the area, as well as monopolizing their time and resources to fight soldiers in the northeastern part so they don’t have the ability to expand their terror reign to other parts of the peninsula.
“The south [of Sinai] is much quieter, including the beach area,” he said. “Tourism has taken a hit since the revolution and until today, and the state is really trying to safeguard tourism with a lot of security forces in the southern area.”
Tourism in Egypt accounts for about 12% of its GDP. In 2010, tourism revenue was $12.5 billion, but it dropped to $5.9 billion in 2013. There was a slow climb until the plane crash, when it dropped again. Following the Russian plane crash, tourism dove 66% in the first quarter of 2016, according to Reuters. Tourism revenues totaled $1.5 billion during this period in 2015, but just $500 million in 2016.
Russian tourists, who accounted for the majority of international tourism in the Sinai, have dropped by almost 50% in the past year. Russia plans to send a trial flight to the Sharm el Sheikh airport in the coming weeks to test security measures and consider restarting flight service to the peninsula.
Israeli tourists in Sinai may not count for a large portion of the overall tourism revenue, because they stay in cheap hostels or huts and don’t spend much money, but their absence has been devastating for the small Bedouin camps in the area.
When you wish upon a star
My days in Sinai passed in a blissful haze of sun and snorkels, staking out the best shade during the hottest part of the day, sleeping out on the sand at night. Perhaps the most magical moment was Friday night, the height of the annual August Perseids meteor shower. I waited for the moon to set to see the stars came out in all their glory. When I dove into the water, it lit up like a sparkler thanks to the bioluminescent plankton.
Utter perfection as pinpricks of light flew through an inky darkness above and below, unable to determine where the sea ended and the sky began, enveloped in a womb of darkness and dancing light.
As I laid on my back watching the stars fall from the heavens I found myself singing pop songs about space. When I got to the instrumental in David Bowie’s “Major Tom,” just at the point of the song’s climax of his tin can taking off into space, a shooting star burst vertically across the sky, the kind that burns green with a tail that lingers, the kind that makes you gasp at the beauty of the heavens and how small and insignificant we are among the infinite galaxy, with our silly borders and terrorism and petty problems. It was as if David Bowie himself was blessing my decision to come to Sinai.
But maybe I’d rather keep Sinai a secret, so it can always stay this quiet and perfect.
So seriously, don’t come. It’s far too dangerous.