EGYPT: IS IT TIME TO VISIT THE DIVE RESORTS?
DIVE's Mark - Crowley - Russell gives his view on whether it's safe for divers to return to Egypt
In the immediate aftermath of the horrific attack which brought down a Russian airliner in October last year, I started writing an article about Sharm El Sheikh, my former home and love of my diving life. And then came Paris, and then attacks in Giza and an incident in Hurghada, and – with international attention focused on the resort, and with emotion levels running so high – I didn’t feel that it was possible to argue a case for visiting Egpyt, at least not for those whose only sources of information are the headlines in their respective national news outlets. After Luke Atkinson’s article, however, and now that some of the furore has died down, perhaps it’s time to address the camel in the room and put some honest perspective into the reasons why people should consider visiting Egyptian dive resorts, once the planes start flying again.
It’s impossible to forget the early part of 2011 when the Egyptian people decided they’d had enough of their government and took to the streets to protest, and eventually overthrow the incumbent Hosni Mubarak and his dictatorial regime. We watched in horror as the violence was broadcast on live TV, and then spent an awful lot of time in the pub, cut off from the outside world as the entire Egyptian Internet was shut down. And then we spent a lot more time in the pub as flights were suspended, and overnight, Sharm became almost a ghost town. Thankfully, the British government did not issue travel warnings to the resorts, only to Cairo, and so we managed to keep ticking over, and even made darkly-humoured jokes about wishing there could be more revolutions, because suddenly we had the reefs to ourselves, and wasn’t the diving great – and then counted our paychecks, and watched our friends disappear, and began to worry how long we could continue to eke out an existence before being forced to throw in the towel.
For the foreign dive staff, however, at least most of us had somewhere else to go, or friends and relatives to fall back on in an emergency. The Egyptian staff, on the other hand, lost their livelihoods in one stroke. Much is made of the financial importance of the tourist industry in Egypt, but there’s little regard for the workers who cater to that industry, who may account for as much as 12 per cent of the Egyptian workforce. There are many more people who work behind-the-scenes than the visible part of the workforce such as hotel staff, boat crews, annoying market hagglers and so on – but the accountants, delivery drivers, maintenance workers and local shopkeepers and the like are often forgotten. Tourists may never see them, but they rely on the tourist industry as much as those that are directly involved.
In the wake of the revolution, I began defending Sharm and the other resorts as safe places to visit. The violence which continued to simmer among the population was confined, in the most part, to small areas of Cairo, with smaller outbursts in Suez and Alexandria, and all of it very, very far away from the resorts, but to read the stories in the worldwide media, one could be forgiven for thinking that a nationwide civil war had begun. On the streets of Sharm, Dahab, Hurghada and Marsa Alam we saw nothing, only worried faces and a sudden explosion of joy when Mubarak decided to step down.
I had nothing else to do so I posted and posted and posted my rational arguments in favour of visiting Egypt’s resorts, including a heated debate with one American gentleman who compared Egypt to ‘the new Afghanistan’.
The problem lay in simple ignorance of Egyptian politics – and I do not mean ignorance through stupidity in all cases (Mr Afghanistan excepted, of course), but more from a lack of information from the media. Maps were posted on news sites showing areas which were safe to travel as ‘green zones’ and there were Sharm and Hurghada, these tiny little blobs of green on an otherwise red-and-orange map of Egypt – rather disingenuous in a way because vast swathes of the Egyptian countryside are inhospitable, mountainous desert, in which it’s not particularly safe to travel at the best of times, because you would die of heat stroke or starvation unless you bumped into some friendly Bedouin.
Nevertheless, despite my protestations, I understand why people would hesitate to book a holiday in a location they were led to believe was unsafe. The bombing of the Russian aircraft has brought an entirely new dimension to the problem, however, and the worldwide rise in terrorist attacks carried out by a group of ideological scumbags has added a huge amount of fuel to a long smouldering fire. I am not going to get into a full-on debate about religious and socio-political ideologies, because this is a dive magazine after all, but what I will say is that yes – the scumbags call themselves the ‘Islamic’ State – and Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country – but when I lived in Sharm my apartment was within 100m of both a mosque and a Christian church. There was never any trouble. The church had a small shop. Muslim women bought supplies there. We did get some extra security guards during the revolution. Mostly they sat around drinking tea with the locals. End of discussion.
What people don’t see, however, are the underlying politics of the current travel ban. There have been terrorist attacks in the past (Sharm 2005, Dahab 2006, Giza 2005), and security was massively beefed up as a result, but one cannot argue against the fact that there has been a failure in security at Sharm International Airport, and one can, therefore, understand to some extent why the current travel ban is in place. What people don’t understand is why.
Governments are in a sort of ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t’ situation. By suspending flights they incur the wrath of the Egyptian government (such as it is) and the influential businesspeople that control the tourist industry, as well as people who’ve seen their holidays postponed or canceled. If they were to remove the suspension, however, and there was another attack, well then they will incur the wrath of everybody else.
Moreover, the holiday companies and – very importantly – the insurance brokers who underwrite those companies – may not be willing to take the risk, because that’s the whole point of insurance: weighing the odds against the financial implications of conducting business. That sounds really cynical but it’s not meant to be, it’s just the simple truth.
We saw this in dramatic effect in the wake of the infamous shark attacks in December 2010. Scandinavian travel agencies imposed a blanket ban on travel to Sharm, because – according to my information at the time – they are underwritten by their governments, who were unwilling or unable to take the risk that they would have to pay up if one of their citizens was attacked, or there were too many cancellations to refund. Scandinavian dive operators lost out massively, and with the revolution happening just a month later, they never really fully recovered.
What people have to realize is that Egypt is a major ally – financially and militarily – to America and Russia, Europe (and – in or out of it – the UK), and they also have a huge trade partnership with China. Russian tourism accounts for the major percentage of visitors to the country, with Germans and the British following behind. The world’s superpowers all have a vested interest in ensuring that Egypt remains both stable and safe to travel, and a large proportion of the hotels and tourist operations in Egypt are owned by high-ranking government and military officials. Needless to say, the Egyptians who work in these resorts also have a huge vested interest in ensuring that suspicious activity is reported to the authorities and I know, for a fact, that if any of my former Egyptian colleagues noticed anything untoward, that’s exactly what they would do. Would I go back to visit? In a heartbeat (if I could), as would most of my friends who lived and worked there, as I know most of our repeat customers
Needless to say, the Egyptians who work in these resorts also have a huge vested interest in ensuring that suspicious activity is reported to the authorities and I know, for a fact, that if any of my former Egyptian colleagues noticed anything untoward, that’s exactly what they would do. Would I go back to visit? In a heartbeat (if I could), as would most of my friends who lived and worked there, as I know most of our repeat customers.
Would I go back to visit? In a heartbeat (if I could), as would most of my friends who lived and worked there, as I know most of our repeat customers would, if there were flights available. There are currently no British carriers flying to Sharm – Easyjet has canceled until the end of May, British Airways and the tour operators Thomas Cook and Thomson until at least the end of March. EgyptAir is still flying to Sharm and Hurghada, but as a national carrier they are more expensive than the charter flights.
Some people, knowing the risk is minuscule, have taken the opportunity to visit. As Luke mentions in his article, the FCO still deems the tourist resorts as safe, and as a former Sharm resident, I would have no doubts about the veracity of that information. I would also repeat and agree with Luke’s sentiment that in the current world climate there are no guarantees, but the risks are very small. I mean this with all possible respect, but the best security in the world hasn’t prevented horrific attacks in major world cities.
What I can say is that all those people with vested interests in the country and the tourist trade are acting rapidly and investing heavily in additional security measures – so when the flights do resume, you can be assured that governments, travel companies and their insurance brokers have weighed the risks and deemed them acceptable.
What I can also say, to end on a positive note, reflects on the state of the reefs after the drop in tourism in 2011. The fish population exploded, with many more sightings of sharks and manta rays especially, the reefs were more vibrant than they had been for years. So if you do decide to visit, you are pretty much guaranteed some of the best Red Sea diving since before the turn of the century. I hope I’ll see some of you there later this year. The beers are on you.