Time For The UK FCO To Lift The Ban On Flights To Sharm
On 31 October 2015, a Russian Airbus A321 was brought down in the Sinai Desert, shortly after leaving Sharm El Sheikh airport, killing all 224 people on board.
In the wake of the disaster, amid accusations of incompetence and inadequate security, flights to the airport were cancelled, and now, over two years later, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has refused to lift its restrictions on direct flights to Sharm El Sheikh airport.
The massive loss of tourism to the resort saw some of the largest and most popular dive centres either closed or mothballed, including big names such as Sinai Divers, Wener Lau, Colona and Emperor Divers.
Many of the foreign dive staff were forced to leave, but their numbers pale into insignificance compared to the tens of thousands of Egyptian workers who found themselves suddenly unemployed. Sad as it might be for a European dive instructor to have to leave their favourite place of work, at least they could move elsewhere or head back home. Many of the Egyptian staff had very few alternatives, especially some of the boat crews, who had grown up plying their trade on dive boats operating from Sharm.
Within 6 months, the German Transport Authority lifted their ban on travel to Sharm Airport. Germans, who had previously constituted the third largest percentage of visitors to Sharm, behind the Russians and the British, began flying just a few months later, with other nations rapidly following suit. Business began to pick up again, slowly, and enough divers made their way to Sharm that Sinai Divers and Werner Lau partnered up to re-open as a joint venture, one year after the disaster.
By the beginning of 2017, Austria, Belgium, Italy, Norway, Poland, Turkey and Ukraine had resumed direct flights to Sharm El Sheikh. Since then, Denmark, Switzerland and the Netherlands have followed suit, but despite the pleas and petitions, and despite the resort itself being designated as ‘safe’, the UK’s FCO refuses to lift the ban on travel to the airport.
After the aircraft was brought down, teams of experts were dispatched by the UK government to appraise and address any problems with security at the airport, with new security measures and equipment implemented as a result. Since the 2015 disaster, there have been no further incidents. The tourists that have returned have found that much of the resort is still open for business – today, it's by no means empty, but not nearly as busy as it was before the attack.
No definitive reason for the delay in lifting the restriction on travel to Sharm airport have been given by the FCO, other than that the team of security experts 'has not yet concluded that it is right to lift the restrictions on direct UK flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh.'
Egypt has certainly had problems with sectarian violence, but they are in the most part very far away from the resorts, both in the Sinai Peninsula and also the Egyptian mainland, where Hurghada, Marsa Alam and El Gouna have also seen a drop in business as a result of a general reluctance to travel to Egypt.
Reports of violence near the town of Al-Arish, located on the Mediterranean coast in the North of the Sinai Peninsula, and around 50km from the Israeli border, are regularly broadcast by the European media, but the conflict is a long way from Sharm. The shortest route by road is over 460km long, there is only one road from Taba to Sharm, and there are a number of security checkpoints along the way.
The rest of the peninsula is a mountainous desert, inhabited by tribes of Bedouin who are generally very peaceable but also do not take kindly to trespassers.
The financial impact of the travel restrictions to Sharm airport has been immense. Both Thomas Cook and Thomson (now TUI) took heavy losses as their flights were cancelled – indeed, many operators throughout Europe were badly hit – but as with the local situation for dive staff, the financial hit to Egypt as a whole was much worse.
People often forget – or don’t see – the amount of people that depend on a resort like Sharm for their income. Not just the dive staff and the boat crews but also the bus drivers, shop owners, restaurant employees, hotel staff and cleaners. Taxi drivers, booking agents, accountants, tour reps, builders, caretakers, estate agents, delivery drivers – there is a teeming amount of life behind the all-inclusive façade.
That there has been a tragedy of epic proportions is without doubt, but it has extended beyond the Russian airline disaster. Sharm El Sheikh needs the support of the UK tourist business, and it needs people to visit and let everybody know that it’s still safe to go there. Is it possible that there could be another attack? It can never be ruled out – but the same argument could be applied to any number of destinations worldwide.
It’s also worth pointing out that the decline in tourism to Sharm – and to Egyptian resorts as a whole – has had a major impact on the world of diving. Sharm became a regular training ground for new British divers. Many customers – myself included, once upon a time – booked a standard hotel, flight and dive course package and left with an open water certification.
If there is a silver lining to this cloud (and clouds are a rare occurrence in the skies above Sharm), it is that the drop in tourism has seen a resurgence in the reefs that were impacted by the volume of divers during the latter half of the 2000s, and the return of large pelagics on a much more frequent basis. The friends I have that remain in Sharm tell me it’s the best diving that they have seen in years.
High season in Sharm is from September onwards, but it can take six months to a year for tour operators to reschedule their charter flights. There are still many routes to get to Sharm from the UK, but it’s time for the UK FCO to re-think the approach to its travel restrictions to Sharm airport, and lift the ban now.
SIGN THE PETITION
There's a petition available on the UK government website - at 10,000 signatures the UK governmnet has to reply to the petitioner, and at 100,000 signatures it is proposed for debate in parliament. The petition is only available to UK citizens, and all you need is your name, e-mail address and postcode.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Watch this space for a forthcoming travel update for Sharm El Sheikh. In the meantime, Take a look at Camel Dive Club's list of available flights (direct and indirect), or last year's travel update from resident instructor Daniel Stokes