Having visited Sharm El Sheikh over Christmas break, Eihab Boraie was shocked to find a ghost town, and returns to Cairo with a dire warning from the hospitality workers that Sharm El Sheikh's possible death will be felt well beyond Sinai.
Sharm el Sheikh is a resilient Red Sea resort city that has dealt with fatal shark attacks, mass food poisonings, and even horrifying hotel bombings; despite these adversities, when given enough time to heal, it has always manage to bounce back. That was until a Russian plane disaster brought to a grinding halt any hope of recovering from the wake of two uprisings and a host of terribly scary globally spanning headlines. Sounding off on the nationalistic drum, the media encourages Egyptians to visit the downtrodden yet sunny elitist winter wonderland, admitting there is a decline of tourists, but failing to properly portray just how devastating the situation has become. Seeking truth,free of the media's LSD (Lies, Stupidity, Divisiveness), I headed to Sharm El Sheikh to find a sunny but spooky ghost city occupied only by the hospitality workers, who are at risk of losing their livelihoods, and warn that Sharm's downfall won't only hurt Sinai but could be another devastating economic hit on a nation already in an endless pit of debt.
Arriving to an eerily abandoned but elaborately decorated Soho Square, I was taken back by just how empty this once bustling stretch had become. The only faces spotted were a mélange of wide-eyed shopkeepers desperately, telepathically, trying to convince me to spend anything in their shops, sitting amongst a scattering of worried hospitality workers wondering – guessing - how long their employers can survive yet another hit. Somehow, I find an optimist in Red Sea of despair. “There is still hope for Sharm. We were able to recover from the 2005 hotel bombings. It took time, but we eventually started doing more business than even before the bombing,” believes Mahmoud El Bas, a captain at the once popular Cocco Beach Club Sharm.
Having worked in Sharm for over a decade, captain El Bas has seen Sharm overcome headlines that would have toppled other resort cities, but admits that this tragedy is particularly difficult because of the close proximity of timing to Egypt's series of unfortunate events. In the past, when Sharm was rocked by a shocking event, it had time to heal; however, with Egypt's quarterly news cycle churning out horrific and embarrassing headlines all around the world, travel to Egypt as a whole struggles to recover. “Every time a tragedy strikes the country we notice a decrease in guests, and we seem to constantly keep trying to get to where we were before it happened. We haven’t had enough time to fully recover from the revolutions for us to attempt to recover from the plane crash,” points out a frustrated el Bas. Unlike previous events, the Russian plane explosion resulted in an extreme international response of cancelling flights from England and Russia, completely decimating Sharm's high season.
This extreme course of action has been building up over time as each global terror event forces nations to take further drastic measures to protect their free-range fear-fed citizens, hoping to appear as being a strong leader against terror, especially in the wake of failure. Also becoming clear is that the location of attack has a clear effect on the degree of response. When the horrific Paris attacks occurred, the world reacted with emotional support, viral hashtags, Facebook check-in status changes, and a significant increase of security forces on European streets. No airlines discussed cancelling flights to Paris, but were conversely willing to, in an instant, strand their citizens in Sharm el Sheikh to supposedly protect them. This double-standard remains in effect until today, and is the first issue that needs to be addressed on the road to recovery - a road Egyptians should be all too familiar with by now.
Egypt has been in a perpetual state of recovery for the past five years and some of the people I met on the boardwalk speculate that airlines are waiting to see what happens on the 5th anniversary of the January 25th uprising before resuming flights. According to rumours online via Avionews.com, the Russians have offered to resume flights as early as next week if they get to partially control the airport. Relying on foreigner know-how is Egypt's favourite solution to systemic problems, admitting that the nation will always fail at reaching international standards because it is incapable of learning. As one of the golf cart driver working at a luxury hotel, who requested to remain nameless, puts it “Sharm el Sheikh has over 300 hotels, and the only way the country will be able to fill occupancies is by addressing the issues scaring away airlines and tourists, and not by convincing Egyptians to flock here during a break. That is a temporary fix that isn't sustainable. Some have suggested that airport security should be run by a foreign company; if that will bring comfort to airlines so they can return to travelling to Egypt, then these are the sort of solutions that the government should be discussing.” This is a sentiment that Captain El Bas would disagree with, believing the opposite: “We need to admit that we, as a country, can do better. It isn’t one problem but several, starting from getting flights to return to establishing new Egyptian travel agencies to book trips, even if that means subsidising them like they do with oil and food. We need to market our country better; we can’t rely on Turkish agencies to book guests for us because, after the crash, they almost entirely stopped.”
The golf cart driver was a lot less optimistic than the captain, possibly because he never witnessed the recovery from the hotel bombings. The longer we spoke the more his skepticism of Egypt seemed rooted in disdain for Egyptian media, identifying their misinformation as a hindrance on the road to recovery. “All the news reports on TV about occupancies in Sharm are fake. You can see for yourself, this is an empty city. So, any report that there is a 20 per cent drop, or even 50 per cent, is false. My best guess is that we have gone from 85 per cent to 10-15 per cent occupancies,” explains the nervous driver.
When it comes to numbers in Egypt it is always best to remain skeptical, as they are always shocking and rarely accurate. However, I reckon the guess of a man with a job at stake is a lot closer than a minister trying to justify doing a good job of downplaying the damage, or a media readily recycling their marching numbers no less. For me, it was hard to ignore the simple fact that every beach I walked by was deserted in what is supposed to be the busy season.
There are those who love Sharm El Sheikh, and those who despise the bourgeois beach, seeing it as more of a budget getaway for international tourists in search for luxury than an Egyptian escape worth taking. Ask an Egyptian and, nine times out of 10, they will tell you they prefer vacationing on a different stretch of the Red Sea - from the naturally beautiful Dahab and Ras Shitan, to newer luxury developments like Gouna and Soma Bay. Personally, I prefer the no frill natural beauty to the lavishly expensive escape; I never thought I would care about whether Sharm would die until the optimistic Captain El Bas painted me a post-apocalyptic picture of an Egypt without its Sharm: “There are something like five million workers in Sharm. Where will they go if Sharm falls? We can’t afford to lose these jobs; it would devastate the economy. It would affect more than just Sharm’s luxury hotels - its fall would hurt the profits of companies selling Coca Cola to Heineken, not to mention food suppliers. Like I said, we all suffer if something isn’t done soon. Within six months you will start seeing a lot of establishments having to close.” Making this nightmare even worse is the looming domino scenario, because chances are Sharm El Sheik will not fall alone, especially considering it's proximity to other popular Red Sea Cities like Hurghada, Dahab, Nuweiba. I haven't visited them yet, but its safe to say they are hurting just as bad if not worse.
Egypt's unemployment is already alarmingly high, with any official number resonating like a fart in the wind. We must all live and die by skepticism in a population of 90 million, as no NGO or government number can claim to be entirely accurate when there is no proper systemic census of the population in place. If there are even a million jobs in Sharm, Egypt can't afford to lose them - especially during these bleak economic times and, if companies’ profits suffer, that will ultimately lead to further job cuts beyond Sinai.
The only way to a true recovery will be a total re-branding of Egypt, supported by popular and meaningful policy changes that lead to true accountability when people fail at their jobs. How else will the country reach international standards without admitting that #ThisisEgypt and that Egyptians can do better and should do better? The world hears a mixed message when authorities claim that human rights issues and controversial detentions are needed because the country is dealing with terrorists, while at the same time telling tourists that Egypt is safe and they should come back. That leads me to think that action is needed immediately and getting the ball rolling will ultimately begin with deciding which of these messages are true. If the government claims both to be the case, then Egypt truly needs foreign help - preferably before their favourite destination disappears.