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Reporter's notebook

Parting the red tape, Israeli tourists wander back into the Sinai

For those willing to put up with the tests, permits and other hassles required to cross the reopened border, an abundance of Egyptian resorts hungry for business await

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Israeli tourists at Ras Sheitan in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, on April 5, 2021. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)
Israeli tourists at Ras Sheitan in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, on April 5, 2021. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

RAS SHAITAN, Egypt — The moods on opposite sides of the Taba crossing between Israel and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula last week could not have been more diametrically opposed.

On the Israeli side, would-be vacation-goers let loose with a salty deluge of expletives upon being informed by a border guard that they didn’t have the proper coronavirus test to enter Egypt, despite having been earlier told by others that they were good to go.

Going the opposite direction, blissed-out tourists made their way back into Israel, their freshly tanned faces still aglow from the long-awaited getaway.

“Guys, it’s totally worth it!” one of the recent returnees said, seeking to cheer up the not yet-vacationing crowd, but likely accomplishing the opposite.

The almost tourists stuck at the border had already traveled for hours to reach the crossing at Israel’s southernmost tip and had already paid an exit fee of NIS 101 ($30), valid for that pre-assigned day only, in addition to another NIS 75 ($23) for a rapid coronavirus test at nearby Eilat’s Sharap private clinic, as recommended by members of a Facebook group for “Sinai Lovers.”

The several dozen people itching to cross into Egypt thought they had checked the relatively long list of boxes necessary in order to finally kick off their vacations, only to be blind-sided at the goal line by a seemingly capricious rule change.

Israelis wait in line at the Taba border crossing on April 4, 2021. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

On March 30, Israel began allowing 300 people a day to cross into Sinai via Taba. The coronavirus pandemic had seriously stunted travel for a year, keeping Israelis normally imbued with wanderlust stuck at home. In late January, just as the nation appeared ready to emerge from the crisis, authorities attempted to hermetically seal off the country to ward off more infectious strains of the coronavirus, implementing strict entry and exit quotas via a set of confusing and often unevenly observed set of rules.

As the border hold-up proved, though, even getting to Sinai involved crossing a sea of red tape and other bureaucratic hurdles. While Egypt only requires a coronavirus test prior to entry, Israel requires that all travelers be vaccinated or recovered from the virus, meaning most children under 16 who never contracted COVID are ineligible.

At least getting one of the lucky 300 daily spots for crossing into Egypt is easy. According to statistics from the Population Immigration and Border Authority, only about half of available vouchers have been purchased since the crossing opened.

View of the empty Taba border crossing between Israeli and Egypt, as it seen from the southern Israeli city of Eilat, January 28, 2021. (Flash90)

Stranded at the border

Those arriving at the Taba crossing on April 4, after an 8 a.m. pitstop at the private Sharap health clinic, had managed to convince themselves that all of the hassle of tests, permits and long lines would ultimately be worthwhile once they were able to sink their toes into the warm sands of Dahab or Sharm el Sheikh.

“What do you mean they don’t accept those tests? We were assured at the clinic that they would be enough. Lots of people have been going there until now,” one would-be tourist named Shlomo lamented to the Israeli guard, as his three friends sat dejected on their suitcases, exhausted from a predawn drive to the border from the ultra-Orthodox town of Elad, near Tel Aviv.

“The Egyptians informed us of the change two hours ago. There’s nothing I can do,” the guard responded.

For the first several days since the border’s opening, the tests offered at Sharap had been deemed sufficient, but the government in Cairo had evidently reversed the decision and was now only accepting PCR tests, as opposed to the rapid ones available at the private clinic in Eilat where Shlomo and his friends had stopped.

Those lucky enough to have undergone PCR tests at other locations within the past 72 hours, as I had done as a precaution, were allowed to proceed through the crossing.

The guard told the larger number of pedestrians stranded at the border that they had the option of paying NIS 300 ($90) for a rapid PCR test at Eilat’s Yoseftal Medical Center and might receive the results in time to still enter Egypt before the crossing closed in the afternoon.

In this March 30, 2019 photo, Umm Yasser, the first Bedouin female guide from the Hamada tribe, looks at Umm Soliman as she plays the flute, near Wadi Sahw, Abu Zenima, in South Sinai, Egypt. (AP Photo/Nariman El-Mofty)

But for the largely younger crowd of travelers who had chosen the Sinai as their destination due to its affordability, this option was simply too costly.

Some decided to return their entrance vouchers and purchase new ones for the following day before Googling cheaper PCR test options, while two particularly frustrated travelers already in their bathing suits said they’d have to cancel their plans altogether, as they only had time to vacation in the Sinai for two days.

Shlomo and his friends huddled at a bench, drawing up a more creative approach. Suddenly, one of them jumped up and ran to guard. “Look! My PCR results just came in!”

“Show me,” said the guard, who was suspicious of the fortuitous timing.

Shlomo whispered to me that his friend had simply edited the file he had received on his phone with the Sharap results, adding the letters “PCR” in hopes that it would be enough to fool the guard.

“Go ahead,” the guard said.

His friends were floored as he turned back and winked at them before proceeding to the first security check. Recognizing that the trick would only work once, the three other Elad natives began rearranging their plans to cross the border the following day.

Liraz and Amit return from a trip to the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt at the Taba Border Crossing on April 4, 2021. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Meanwhile, tanned and happy Israelis continued to cross the border the other way, a preview of what might await the huddled masses without PCR tests if they only persevered.

“Wow, it was a dream… We had waited so long for this,” a glowing Liraz Amar said as her friend Amit Keren nodded in agreement.

Asked if the bureaucratic rigamarole involved in crossing the border, not to mention a second $40 coronavirus test on the Egyptian side, had been worth it, the two young women responded in unison: “Absolutely.”

We’ve missed you(r money)!

The several dozen that did manage to cross the border that day encountered a Sinai that was thirsty for tourists.

“They really missed Israelis,” said Keren, who had spent three days with Amar at a resort in Dahab. “I had been scared to come here, but people were so friendly and many of the workers speak Hebrew!”

For Sinai resort towns that are financially dependent on tourists, the excitement after a pandemic-plagued year was to be expected. Tourism accounts for some 12% of Egypt’s gross domestic product.

Israeli tourists watch the sunset in Sinai on August 12, 2016. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

2019 had been a banner year for Israeli tourism in Sinai — nearly 62,000 Israelis visited the peninsula over the High Holidays and Sukkot that year alone, a 20 percent increase over the year before, according to The Marker, citing Israel Airports Authority figures. But by the time Passover 2020 rolled around, another period when Israelis ironically flock to the Sinai in a sort of reverse exodus, the world had been shut down by the virus.

Under pressure to revive its vital tourism industry as the pandemic appeared to recede, Cairo okayed the opening of three areas for foreign visitors, including the Sinai, in July.

Passengers from select countries with lower COVID case numbers have been granted entry so long as they arrive with a negative PCR test from within 72 hours before. But until the Taba crossing opened on March 30, Israelis had not been among the select few that have been peppering the peninsula’s shores.

With only a few hundred Israeli tourists entering a day, though, and some countries still advising against travel there, many areas in the Sinai still felt rather empty.

The Taba Hilton and Casino on April 4, 2021. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

At the Hilton hotel and casino in Taba, steps away from the border crossing, blackjack and roulette tables were largely empty as dealers waited around with no one to dish out cards to. Egyptians are forbidden from gambling at the casino, which was turned over to Cairo nearly a decade after the rest of the Sinai, meaning its main clientele are normally Israelis and foreign tourists going through the crossing.

As a group of four Israeli tourists ambled in, the dealers hurried to their positions, rotating every two hands of blackjack so each of them would get a turn.

After less than an hour of playing, the tourists got up to leave, leading the hotel manager to plead with them to stay.

Aruchat Erev?” he asked, offering them dinner on the house in Hebrew.

The Israelis politely declined, saying they had to get on their way to Sharm el Sheikh where they were staying.

Other vacation hotspots that accepted Egyptians had more success at attracting visitors.

The New Moon Island Beach Camp, located some 50 kilometers south of the border, was nearly sold out with a combination of roughly 75 Egyptian, Russian and Israeli guests who lodged in rows of straw bungalows along the exquisitely calm Red Sea waters.

New Moon Camp near Ras Sheitan in the Sinai Peninsula on April 4, 2021. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

As most Israelis do not venture further than the Sinai in Egypt, the campgrounds provided a unique opportunity for them to interact, chat and even flirt with some of their Arab neighbors to the south.

Two young-looking Israeli women were sunbathing by the water when a couple of Cairo natives plopped down next to them and asked in English what brought them to the Sinai.

“We’re on a pre-army trip,” one of them responded in a heavy Israeli accent.

The Egyptians seemed surprised, leading the girl to explain that both men and women are required to serve in the Israeli military.

“We have a lot of enemies,” the girl explained as the Cairo natives stared blankly.

“And there’s no way to get out of it?” one of the men asked, shifting to a more inquisitive tone.

New Moon Camp in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt on April 5, 2021. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

“You know what is kaban?” the Israeli asked, apparently unaware that a pair of non-Hebrew speaking Egyptians wouldn’t know the Hebrew acronym for mental health officer.

The Egyptians predictably shook their heads, leading the Israeli teen to reply, “You go to him and you tell him you are loco and that’s the only way you get out of the army.”

The suddenly less-interested Egyptians nodded silently before getting up and walking away.

They appeared to have better luck striking up a conversation with an older Israeli man in his 60s who sported a sailor’s hat and seemed to know everyone at the campsite.

They ended up playing a round of backgammon together before retiring for the night.

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