On October 31 2015, a passenger jet operated by Russia’s Metrojet airline took off from Sharm el Sheikh International Airport. It was heading for St Petersburg with a cargo of seven crew and 217 passengers, mostly families returning home from their sunny holiday along Egypt’s Red Sea Coast.
No one on that plane would complete their journey. After 23 minutes in the air, a bomb exploded in the hold, causing sudden, uncontrolled decompression. The aircraft disintegrated in mid-air. The Sinai Branch of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant claimed responsibility for the attack.
Three months later, I visited Sharm el Sheikh, landing at that same airport, which is supposed to be Egypt’s third-busiest, with a capacity to handle 5-million passengers per year. The glossy international terminal was eerily quiet. Just a single conveyor belt was operating, and my fellow passengers were, like me, there for business rather than pleasure.
Sharm el Sheikh itself felt like the setting for a post-apocalyptic movie, its restaurants empty and its markets entirely free from the bustle that usually gives them such character. On the beach, rows and rows of empty sun loungers waited for holidaymakers that would never come, while some of the mammoth resorts which line the coast had shut down entirely.
Sharm el Sheikh’s experience has mirrored that of Egypt as a whole. The country used to be one of the world’s favourite tourist destinations — and why wouldn’t it be, with its abundance of extraordinarily preserved ancient artefacts, its wealth of iconic architecture and religious monuments, its pristine beaches and its world-class diving. In 2010, more than 14-million people visited the country, bringing in revenues of $12-billion.
But the Arab Spring that ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak dissuaded holidaymakers, as did the political instability which followed. In 2013, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi staged a military coup and installed himself in the presidency, but his strongarm tactics and inability to contain militant activity in the Sinai region did not do much to restore confidence in the country’s struggling hospitality sector. By 2015, the year the Russian plane was bombed, tourist numbers were down to just 5.6-million.
In recent years, things have been looking up, however. Slowly, that confidence has been returning, helped by a massive security presence at airports and key tourist sites — and a brutal crackdown against militant groups in the Sinai. Visitor numbers crept above the 9 million mark last year, suggesting that the government is beginning to bring the political situation under control.
But two recent incidents near Egypt’s most famous attraction, the Pyramids of Giza, once again bring into question the country’s safety for foreigners. In December 2018, a bomb explosion targeting a tourist bus killed four people — an Egyptian tour guide and three tourists from Vietnam. A similar attack on Sunday targeted a bus carrying a South African tour group, wounding 17 people.
It’s not just tourists at risk, of course, despite the headlines in international media that seem to suggest that the lives of some nationalities are more newsworthy than others. Egyptians too have been targeted in violence: both by militants, in horrific attacks on churches and mosques; or by their own government, in crackdowns against protestors and in suspected extrajudicial killings in the Sinai.
Some countries have issued advisories against travel to parts of Egypt, such as the United Kingdom, which said: “Terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Egypt. You should be vigilant at all times and follow the advice of the Egyptian authorities and your travel company, if you have one.”
The South African government, however, has adopted a more bullish approach – even encouraging citizens to book tickets for the upcoming African Cup of Nations football tournament which begins next month. “We call on South Africans to go in numbers and support their team at the Africa Cup of Nations and believe the Egyptian authorities have the capacity to successfully guard the games‚” said international relations department spokesperson Ndivhuwo Mabaya, speaking toTimesLIVE. “We feel there is no need to panic‚ we have faith in the Egyptian law enforcement agencies to handle the situation and we understand that these types of things do happen.”
Sure, these types of things do happen; but they seem to happen in Egypt with a greater frequency than any other top tourist destination. Until the Egyptian government finds a way to deal more effectively with its political problems, it may prove difficult to fill up those beach loungers.
The bomb which brought down the Metrojet plane is the highest profile – and most deadly – attack on Egypt’s tourist industry, but this is far from an isolated incident.
Egypt’s tourist industry, battered by years of instability, was only just beginning to recover when it suffered yet another disastrous setback on Sunday. The good news is that no one was killed in the latest attack, in which a tourist bus was targeted by an explosion near the Pyramids of Giza (although 17 people were injured — including a number of South Africans).
The bad news is that Egypt can ill-afford to lose even more tourist dollars, and the government seems powerless to protect its foreign visitors.
Sunday’s incident is the latest in a long and deadly series of attacks on tourists and tourist attractions.