For most Jews, Passover is the holiday that recalls the Exodus from Egypt through the Sinai desert. But this year, the Sinai is expecting a reverse in traffic, as the peninsula gears up to host what could be the largest number of Israeli visitors to the peninsula since the Red Sea split.
The expected large uptick in visitors is thanks to a new direct flight from Tel Aviv to Sharm el Sheikh on Arkia, Israel’s discount airline, expected to launch during Passover.
This is also the first Passover season since Israel’s National Security Council scaled back its travel warning for parts of the Sinai Peninsula for the first time in more than a decade. And after two years of pandemic isolations and cancellations, many Israelis are itching to get out of the country.
Just before the pandemic, travel to Sinai reached record heights. In October 2019, during the Jewish holiday season when many Israelis have vacation from work and school, more than 150,000 Israelis visited Sinai.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Israel kept the entrance to Sinai at the Taba border closed to Israelis for 54 weeks.
Starting in the summer of 2020, international tourists could pass through, but since both Israel and Egypt were closed to international tourists during parts of the pandemic, the crossing was infrequently used.
Taba opened to just 300 Israelis per day on March 31, 2021, with the number of permits to cross rising throughout the summer of 2021. The Transportation Ministry fully opened the border, without restrictions, in September of last year.
When COVID-19 struck in March 2020 and everything stopped, the suddenly empty huts and restaurants went into a nosedive more extreme than previous slowdowns. But these businesses had been through tough times before.
In the past decades, Sinai has frequently experienced geopolitical instability that causes tourism to plunge then slowly rebound to higher levels, a cycle that seems to repeat every few years.
Terror attacks, including bombings at the Hilton Taba and Ras Shaitan in 2004, and the 2015 bombing of Russian Metrojet airliner that departed from Sharm el Sheikh, have caused whiplash changes in tourism levels.
Starting in 2016, Israeli tourism to Sinai started to climb steadily, almost doubling between 2017 and 2019, according to the Interior Ministry. Many beaches popular among Israelis rushed to build more huts and more amenities for the growing number of guests.
So when coronavirus lockdowns wreaked havoc on other tourism-based economies around the globe, many beach camp owners took advantage of the lull to continue expanding for guests they knew would return.
Build back better
In March 2020, Farag Ode, 38, was just finishing up his first year as the new manager of New Moon Island, a beach camp that his family has owned and run after separating from Moon Island.
New Moon Island was like many of the other beach camps in Ras Shaitan, with a scattering of bamboo huts on the beach. But Ode had bigger visions, and he was in the midst of overseeing major renovations, including adding a glass-paneled restaurant, a new reception building, and a new section of air-conditioned rooms, when the pandemic shut everything down.
“We totally closed the place for three or four months, with only the security people and the people watering the plants here,” he said. “All the workers went back to their houses, and we paid them half salary and gave them rice for their families.”
Ode said between their savings and selling off some of their vehicles, they were able to make it through the lockdown period and continue the building projects begun prior to the pandemic.
Egyptians from Cairo started dribbling in over the summer of 2020, after Sinai was declared a “green zone” for domestic travelers who could provide a negative COVID test. Israelis began to return, slowly, in March 2021. New Moon Island slowly increased capacity from 25% to 50%, and finally to 100% after the entire staff got vaccinated.
In the fall of 2021, before the Omicron variant dashed many travel plans, New Moon Island and most of the other beaches along the strip of Ras Shaitan were at capacity almost every weekend.
Even so, said Ode, tourists’ tastes had changed, and they asked for accommodations with toilets and air conditioning — not the usual Sinai husha, a simple bamboo hut on the beach.
With global warming and higher temperatures, very few tourists wanted to stay in non-air conditioned accommodations in the summer, he said.
Other nearby accommodations, including Adam Camp and Little Head Camp, also in Ras Shaitan, have also added more air-conditioned rooms and beachfront bars over the course of the last few years.
“You have to always keep moving with the circle of trends, you can’t stop the circle,” said Ode. “Some camps have stopped and don’t move with the trends, and they don’t have work. Those that moved with the trends, they have work.”
If the Hasidim don’t go to Uman, no one goes to Sinai
No one was angrier about the border’s year-long closure than Guy Shiloh, a lawyer and activist who runs the Sinai Lovers Facebook group and website, a popular resource for Israelis planning trips to Sinai.
During the pandemic, Shiloh and other activists filed four petitions with the High Court of Justice to force the Interior Ministry to open the Taba Border Crossing, pointing to the fact that the Ben Gurion Airport was open.
One of the things that frustrated Shiloh most was how the call to reopen the border got politicized and twisted during the pandemic. Rumors flew that the border to Sinai was closed in 2020 as punishment because ultra-Orthodox Israelis couldn’t go to Uman in Ukraine as they often do on Rosh Hashanah, Shiloh said.
“So it meant that everything turned very political, right and left, liberals and conservatives. Someone who wanted to open Sinai is against the government, and if you support the government you want to keep Sinai closed,” he said.
For Shiloh, a champion of the region who has provided guidance to thousands of curious Israeli travelers through his Facebook group and vast network of contacts, it was painful to watch something he loved become politicized.
“In December 2020 they opened Dubai, and 70,000 Israelis flew to Dubai in the first month and came back with a lot of coronavirus,” Shiloh said. “But Sinai they kept closed without giving any reason.”
According to statistics from the Population Immigration and Border Authority, in 2017, more than 360,000 Israelis crossed into Sinai through the Taba border crossing. In 2019, that number nearly doubled to almost 700,000 people.
In 2020, just over 68,000 crossed into Sinai through Taba. In 2021, despite the limitations for most of the year, almost 170,000 people crossed the border, the majority in the fall months after the daily limits were lifted in September. This also coincided with the lifting of the decade-long security warning for Sinai.
“We credit social networks with the fact that Sinai has returned to the consciousness of the Israelis,” said Shiloh. “If there hadn’t been coronavirus, [visitors] would have grown even more, because friends bring other friends.”
‘It comes in waves’
The tests Israeli travelers to Sinai now must take before entering and leaving Sinai add to the cost of the trip, not to mention the prices of food and accommodation, which have risen significantly to combat inflation and a year of lost business.
But few people are complaining.
“Sinai is still cheaper than any vacation in Israel,” said Daniel Blum, a 28-year-old speech therapist who celebrated his birthday in Ras Shaitan in November.
“Now in Israel, everything is so expensive, even the worst and grossest cabins in Israel cost NIS 800 per night,” said Noam Ben Moshe, a tour guide who has worked in Israel and Sinai for decades.
One of the people who has always considered Sinai a second home is Barak Gur, who celebrated his 50th birthday with a group of friends at Moon Island in November.
“They thought this would be the Riviera in the 1990s,” said Gur. “They talked about peace. There was a lot of hope that didn’t get realized. But when you see it with the perspective of years, that’s the reality here. The reality is that there are waves, maybe it’s geopolitical or whatever, something always happens and everyone runs back to curl up in their conch shells.”
He looked out over the sparkling blue water, to the red desert mountains across the sea that were just beginning to disappear in the morning haze.
“And then,” he added, “slowly, slowly, [tourists] come back.”
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