Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 October 2011
Issue No. 1067
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Defying the warnings

mira El-Naqeeb ventures to Sinai despite travel alerts

Click to view caption
A bee-hive of travellers enjoying a plethora of activities in the beautiful Eden of Sinai

Whenever I plan a holiday I always settle on Sinai. Given recent tensions between Egypt and Israel there and post-revolution conditions, it was time to revisit my favourite spot to find out what the fuss is all about. A group of avid safarists, including myself, decided to head to two of the most stunning destinations in South Sinai: Dahab and Ras Mohamed Natural Protectorate. Both destinations offer a plethora of activities: diving, snorkelling, biking and camping.

THE ROAD: We started in the wee hours on a large rented bus. One of the reasons that many Egyptians stopped going to Sinai after the revolution is reportedly because of frequent security checkpoints along the way. But Until Oyoun Moussa checkpoint, nobody stopped us; at Saint Catherine roadblock, army soldiers mounted the bus and respectfully asked for everyone's ID. We did not mind at all. It was a good idea to maintain security.

We pulled over for tea and bathroom break at Al-Warda Al-Beida cafeteria, a resthouse 10km before the Martyr Ahmed Helmi tunnel. A cursory look at the cleanliness of the utensils at the table was discouraging, although friends who had cheese sandwiches said they were palatable. The bathroom which incongruously had a "Touristic Facilities" sign on the door and requires LE1 to enter, was a hygiene hazard and definitely did not match the strategic location of the café as a major stop for all travellers going to Sinai. I strongly recommend packing a disinfectant spray or cleansing wipes for this stop. There is another alternative, which is using the facility at the Watania Gas Station, which is also located just before the tunnel. The bathrooms are cleaner, as well as the cafeteria. There is also a supermarket inside where you can buy canned and wrapped products.

RAS MOHAMED: We reached Ras Mohamed Natural Protectorate at around 3pm. The weather was fantastic, warm, with a nice breeze. Ras Mohamed Peninsula was declared the first Egyptian National Park in 1983. Located 12km from Sharm El-Sheikh, the park extends over an area of 480 square kilometres, including 135 square kilometres on land and 345 square kilometres underwater. This natural protectorate includes both marine and terrestrial areas of Tiran Island and the coastlines from the main Sharm El-Sheikh Harbour to the southern border of the Nabq Managed Resource Protected Area.

Upon arrival, we found our camping sight almost ready. Ashraf Khalil, our safari guide, has been in the business for the past 18 years. Khalil had windbreakers made from sheep wool erected in case someone didn't have a tent, or -- like most of us -- chose to sleep outside in sleeping bags. We camped at Marsa Beriga, a small bay inlet in Ras Mohamed.

As the sun set we huddled in circles to eat a hot meal cooked by local Bedouins. The view of the sun's golden rays turning gradually from red into lilac, transforming the tranquil blue waters into a carpet of molten silver was mesmerising. We gathered around a bonfire to drink tea, chitchat and sing in the spirit of good scouts. It was a good chance to pick Khalil's brain on the current state of tourism in the area.

He said that the recent incident with Israel on the northern Sinai borders which killed six Egyptian soldiers mostly affected domestic tourism rather than international travellers. "I primarily depend on word of mouth and personal recommendations for advertising," Khalil stated. "A website like Trip Advisor is one of the sources people contact me through. If I was getting five requests in the past, after the revolution they went down to one."

He organises travel excursions as well as all-out tailored travel packages. The main problem with a top website like Trip Advisor is that it includes travel alerts that warn tourists against going to Egypt. This, naturally, greatly impacts the number of tourists coming to Egypt. Asked if the departure of ousted president Hosni Mubarak from Sharm El-Sheikh Hospital to stand trial in Cairo has affected tourism in any way, Khalil was doubtful -- certainly not for his business.

He discussed a number of challenges facing him after the revolution. Tourism is still suffering not only in quantity but also in quality: "After the revolution, the quality of tourists coming to Sinai has differed," he stated. "Today, tourists are looking for cheap bargains and that's why all-inclusive deals have increased. Also, markets in Eastern Europe and the Far East now have a bigger niche."

Camping at Ras Mohamed is not a widely promoted activity amongst travellers; it is best spread by word of mouth through independent travellers who blog or expatriates who live in or work in Sharm or Dahab. Most tourist companies come here for a day visit to snorkel or dive, but not for camping.

At about 2.30am, my body surrendered to sleep. I crawled inside my sleeping bag, lying on my back to take in as much of the scenery as possible. It was a clear night; the sky a deep blue with thousands of stars like diamonds. The open vista of the sea was bordered in the far horizon by silhouetted mountains. The weather was perfect; neither hot nor cold with a mild breeze. I tried to keep my eyes open, but finally slipped into a restful sleep.

The plan for the next day was to snorkel at Al-Aqaba -- being on the Gulf of Aqaba -- also known as the Telescope. This is due to the fact that there is an actual telescope placed on top of a small mountain. We climbed some steps that took us to a sublime open vista of the Gulf of Suez, and Sharm El Sheikh. This spot is famous for underwater caves that are home to an astounding array of colourful fish and sea plants. We split into teams, and set off on our snorkelling adventure. Being among diving experts was a huge advantage; my group knew the different types of fish and used sign language to draw my attention to spectacular looking fish around us. We also saw a cluster of baby sharks swimming not so far away beneath us. Simply put, the atmosphere and mood were extraordinary.

It was almost four in the afternoon when we got back to camp. After a hearty meal, we packed and headed to our next destination, Dahab.

DAHAB: Also known as Hippy Town -- or among shoestring travellers, the land of vagabonds -- Dahab offers everything that sun and sea seekers could ask for: diving, snorkelling or just lazing about like sun-worshipping lounge lizards. Known for its laid back character, Dahab's overall mood was different this time. It was bustling with life, as most vacationers there were young Egyptians who were ready to party, especially after Ramadan.

Dahab isn't famous for its busy night life, and vacationers can enjoy a quiet stroll on the promenade, or visit one of the cafés dotting the coast to enjoy Bedouin-style seating and local food and drink. But on this visit, there were parties all weekend -- mostly at Rush Club and Mojito Bar, two local night spots.

Sitting at one of the restaurants for dinner, I sensed that although the small town was lively it wasn't at the usual peak for this season. "The problem after the revolution is the security alerts on most of the major travel websites," revealed Ali Saad, owner of one of the restaurants in Dahab on the Masbat promenade area. "Foreign tour operators told me that as long as the army is in power they feel the country is in a state of war. Subsequently, anyone who wants to travel to Egypt goes at their own risk, without insurance."

Refaat Mohamed, who owns Egypt Safari Company, said that while attending tourism fairs in Netherlands and Belgium to promote desert safaris in South Sinai, Dahab is always promoted as a resort affiliated with Sharm El-Sheikh, not as a stand-alone destination. "I face many problems running my Safari business," Mohamed imparted. "It is a very complicated process to take a group of tourists on safari; I have to send copies of their passport one month in advance for security clearance by Army Intelligence, the Ministry of Defence and Tourism Police." Do these complications persist after the revolution? "Well, no groups have come since," he said.

Saad confirmed that tensions between Cairo and Tel Aviv have overshadowed domestic tourism; many Egyptian groups cancelled their trips. As for Israeli tourism in Sinai, Saad said his friends in the hotel industry told him that around 200 Israelis came through Taba and were mostly staying in five-star hotels. According to Saad, the situation in Dahab hasn't improved so far and occupancy rates are still very low.

Staying at Red Sea Relax Hotel was a good opportunity to gather facts about occupancy in Dahab after the revolution. This hotel was voted for on Hostels of the World website two years ago, and has a very good reputation -- always fully booked whenever I wanted a room. It is known for its strategic location at the light house, friendly staff, and a charming rooftop view of the bay. Hotel owner Chris Tomely confirmed that the revolution greatly impacted tourism in Dahab, especially because of security alerts on websites that promote Egypt. This means that conditions in Dahab since January have remained more or less the same.

Occupancy at his hotel went down by 50 per cent since last year; in March and February alone he had 26 cancellations. Although bookings are not rolling in at the same rate, he said he is optimistic that things are picking up since no one had cancelled their Easter plans. Tomely said he was able to avoid firing anyone on his staff, but has struggled to stay afloat.

Our journey back to Cairo took relatively longer since most Cairenes were heading back to the capital at the same time -- the last day of Eid -- and security checks by the army were more intense. With a lot of time to watch the Red Mountains on the Sinai road, I was despondent that there are alerts and warnings against visiting such natural beauty. At least now nationals will receive the lion's share of fantastic deals their homeland has to offer.

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