Only the brave visit Egypt as its tourism industry crashes

Laura Dean
Yahoo! News
Beaches look lovely -- but empty.
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SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt — There’s nothing like being on the brink of civil war to turn a nation’s hottest tourist destinations into ghost towns.

It should be high season for this famed Red Sea resort town, which is beloved by Europeans but more known in the U.S. as the site of several failed peace efforts between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Indeed, tourists from Scandinavia, Russia and the U.K. usually clog the town's glittering casinos and dance clubs. Visitors marvel at the luxury hotels and come from near and far for its stunning scuba diving.

Not now.

At least nowhere near the numbers shop owners and travel organizers are used to.

The military ouster of Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first popularly elected president in postrevolution Egypt, has infuriated his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood and led to running battles in the streets of Cairo and the north Sinai.

Sharm el-Sheikh, in south Sinai and in part due to extraordinary security sent its way, has been spared the violence but suffers empty beaches and vacant hotels.                                                                                                        

While the rest of the country rushes home at sunset before the 7 p.m. curfew, in Sharm el-Sheikh, bar owners stand outside their establishments to drum up business.  

Abu Hassan Yestawi, a 28-year-old shop owner from the southern Egyptian town of Aswan,  says he is very scared for the country’s economic health. Speaking for shop owners, he says, “no one buys anymore than he has to” from the large warehouse outside town.

Egypt blames the problem on perception.

Fearfulof lawsuits, some European tour companies are practically bribing customers with a 120% refund to just stay home, infuriating Egyptian tourism czars who have asked several European nations to actually encourage travel to this most ancient of lands, where the Los Angeles Times says 1 of every 8 people make their money from the industry.

The tourists who are here though, conscious of the difficult times in which Egyptians find themselves, are eager to share their positive experiences.

“You’ve only got to look at us to see we’re getting color and are enjoying it,” said Sylvia Sherin, a 75-year-old British tourist visiting Sharm el-Sheikh for the second time.

Workers report that most of the foreign tourists here have been to the Red Sea before and understand that it is an isolated haven away from the frightening images of the capital.

Sherin said she had to reassure many family members and friends in advance of her trip, though. Her itinerary had originally included a tour of the Valley of the Kings and St. Katherine’s Monastery, but she and her family decided to limit it to the Red Sea for security reasons.

Tourism, an industry that used to account for 11 percent of GDP, has been in decline in Egypt since the uprisings in January 2011 that led to the ouster of then-President Hosni Mubarak.

While stability, and more importantly for Sharm el-Sheikh, the perception of it, has not returned to Egypt, one thing that has is the police. Reporting for this piece was cut short by a brief detention by the tourist police. In his office Colonel Ahmed asked if, in America, one could just go around and take photos without a permit. He seemed to think it was a rhetorical question and was quite disbelieving when he was told that, yes, you could. Harassment of journalists since Aug. 14 has occurred at unprecedented levels.

But Susan Burke, a 50-year-old British woman and the niece of Sherin, couldn’t say enough about her stay: In the U.K., she said, “people never have time for the elderly. But here, as soon as they see (her aunt), they’re rushing over. . . . They can’t do enough for her.”

“I’d like to stay longer than two weeks,” Sherin said in agreement.