REPORT FROM SHARM ON IMPACT OF FLIGHT BAN
I’ve been in touch with a few friends who are still based in Sharm – and the news is depressing.
Back in early December, the situation on the ground was confusing, with politicians wrangling over what had actually happened and who might have been responsible, and travel agencies struggling to keep up with the unfolding situation, FCO advice against air travel to Sharm, mass cancellations and media headlines.
I contacted my former boss Rolf Schmidt – owner of Sinai Divers, pioneer of Red Sea dive tourism and all round bloody good bloke – and he had this to say at the time: ‘At the moment there are NO flights scheduled ... to Sharm from any European countries except the Ukraine and Switzerland.... Russia suspended ALL flights to Egypt which has a massive impact on the tourist industry since they represent around 60 per cent of all tourists in Egypt. FTI, the largest German tour operator in Egypt, will have no flights to Sharm until 15 March 2016. So at the moment Sharm and for sure Dahab are ghost towns, and as you can imagine many instructors are not renewing work permits and are leaving. The Xmas season is gone’
January through March is the low season for Egypt, and the Christmas period is an important source of income for all involved, as it helps to tide people over until Easter. Low season is not the best time to dive the Red Sea – but it’s still absolutely stunning, just a bit chilly. The winter months are especially popular with Scandinavian tourists, eager to escape the long winter nights for some sunshine. Werner Lau, which has a large Scandinavian customer base, became the first big-name victim of the flight suspension, closing its doors for business at the end of December.
The loss of experienced instructors and their invaluable language skills is a serious blow to the multi-national nature of the diving world in Sharm. While Egyptians instructors do have a knack for languages, the dive centres need fluent German, Russian, Polish, Dutch, Italian and French speakers as well as English and the Scandinavian languages. Learning to give dive briefings in a foreign language is one thing, but teaching an open water course requires a mastery of the language that is not always easy to find amongst non-native speakers.
Foreign instructors, however, are only a tiny minority compared to the legions of Egyptians who staff the resorts, and who have lost their livelihoods as a result of the flight ban.
The most recent update from Rolf was heartbreaking to read: ‘The situation in Sharm is a disaster. There are no divers around except a few Ukrainians since they are the only ones who are still flying. The rest are normal [Egyptian] tourists (school holidays), but no divers. So far all dates which have been published previously are cancelled. The German flights are not returning before the end of the summer. Same with most European charter flights. The UK flights? They talked about 23 March but easyJet not before June. Sixty to seventy hotels are already closed and so are dive centres. Camel, RSDC (Red Sea Diving College) and Sinai Divers are open but not really working. Emperor closed ... for the time being. In the first half of January there were still a few divers but with one boat going out with seven guests from four or five centres. It is real bad. And so is Dahab as one can imagine. Even the centres on the other side (mainland Egypt, as opposed to the Sinai) all the way down to Marsa Alam have 20 - 30 per cent fewer clients. A lot of flights have been cancelled as well, but at least there is still work.'
To clarify the situation regarding Emperor Divers: I contacted a member of their staff and I am assured that they will honour any bookings they receive, but the physical centre is currently closed and in standby mode.
The day after I received this e-mail one of the British carriers pushed their date for resumption of flights back from 23 March to 25 May. Any talk of bringing the flights back early is gone, and the dates may get pushed back further still.
It’s easy to blame the tour operators but it’s not entirely their fault – they have a big business to run and can’t realistically offer a service that nobody wants. If you tried to book a flight through some operators, you may have noticed that bookings were still available but with a warning that the flight could not be guaranteed. This is probably an attempt to determine the level of demand for a destination in order to decide if it’s financially viable to travel there. The logistics involved in booking slots for aircraft at an airport can stretch forward up to a year in advance, and don’t forget that airlines have to insure their aircraft in the same way you have to insure your car. If a destination airport is judged to be at risk based on government advice (which it currently is) then insurance premiums will go through the roof.
If there’s no demand, then there can be no supply.
The closure of so many hotels is a major loss of livelihood for the Egyptian workers who staff them, as well as those in the service industries who cater to the resort. In a country where the national minimum wage is around £100 per month, the added bonus brought by the tourist industry allows many Egyptian workers to support families who remain in the cities of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez, far better than their equivalent salaries would be back home.
Seven guests on a boat is an equal hammer blow to the crews of the 250 dive boats that operate in the area. Like the dive staff, many are not salaried and therefore only get paid if they are working, and a substantial part of their income is through the sale of food and drinks to their passengers.
I mentioned in my first report that most foreign dive professionals ‘at least have somewhere else to go’ but for others it is not so easy. Some are settled, even married to Egyptian nationals, and for them it is not just a “way of life”, it is their whole life. ‘I have a life and love in Sharm,’ wrote a friend, ‘That makes things more difficult.’
When it comes to the dive centres themselves, another friend describes even the biggest names as effectively ‘mothballed’ – as in – they keep things ticking over just in case people do turn up. ‘If you come, we will dive’, he says, but not everybody has a walk-in beach-front presence, and so the centres themselves don’t open every day.
After my own experience of an empty Sharm after the revolution in 2011, I well recall the day the flights started up again and suddenly we had a dive centre full of a number of repeat customers who ordinarily wouldn’t visit until much later in the year. Many of them said they’d just come out to support us, and I wasn’t the only member of staff to get misty-eyed upon hearing that, nor the only guide whose voice broke a little during that first dive briefing.
And once again, Sharm – and the rest of the Egyptian Dive resorts – needs your support. That’s not an easy request to make because it’s not as if people can just get up and go; it’s more expensive to get there and involves a lot more hassle.
I very much understand why people are hesitant of booking anything in Egypt right now, but if the dive centres start closing, there may not be much of a Sharm to go back to in the future – at least, not as we’ve known and loved it over the years. It needs people to go there and come back and say that everything was just fine, thank you, and build back some confidence in the region. There is undoubtedly work to be done to help restore this confidence, and if people want to wait until the restrictions are lifted then so be it – but if you’ve weighed the current travel advice and judged the risk to be acceptable, have a look at our article on how you can get there if you want to.
Divers are a loyal bunch and hardier than most when it comes to travelling, and so I end with a plea for readers to at least consider Sharm as a destination this year. Life is full of risks, but the Red Sea is full of some of the best diving on the planet, and I hope I’ll be seeing some of you in the water (and the pub) when I get there.