Good morning Sinai
Victoria Harper ponders the future of tourism in Sharm El-Sheikh
The palm-lined streets that greet you just north of Sharm El-Sheikh Airport announce you've arrived in the posh quarter of Nabq Bay. This is the newest neighbourhood of Sharm El-Sheikh and, some say, the most sought-after in this world-renowned tourist destination.
Nabq Bay's shops and restaurants enjoy the luxury of ample parking, something that the planners of Neama Bay, at the heart of the city, overlooked. Nabq Bay's residents like to brag about their surroundings, the beauty and amenities in particular. Some state incorrectly that it has 90 per cent of all five-star hotels in Sharm El Sheikh; the claim is exaggerated, but there is definitely an air of gentility and luxury about the place.
The municipal art reflects this sense of confidence, albeit in an offbeat way. One of the four major roundabouts in Nabq Bay is occupied by six-metre-tall abstract giants performing various acts of agricultural work. Images invoking Walt Disney animation rise above shopping centres and restaurants, such as a Pharaonic figure on a surfboard. It's a place where you come to have fun, to spend time in a magic world. But how long will the magic last?
Since the Egyptian revolution, security in Sinai has been challenged by bouts of violence. A few abductions proved benign as hostages are released amicably after a day or two of hospitality. But recently, things got hairier with the attack on an Egyptian border outpost that killed 16. This happened in Rafah, hundreds of kilometres to the north, but in the world press the name Sinai made the headlines.
This is the last thing you want to see happen when you've just invested millions of dollars in your Red Sea business. Cancellations are to be expected, tourists may shun the place for a while, and new investment in the area may come to a standstill. I was curious to find out if that was actually happening.
In my recent visit to Nabq Bay, the streets were practically empty. It was four in the afternoon when I parked my car in front of the TGI Friday's next door to Starbucks and across the street from the Hard Rock Café, which is expected to open in the next few months. The boys working in a sidewalk kiosk were busy laying out their display of shoes, purses, and random fake leather products when I began questioning them about the state of business.
One of them patriotically asked to see my press credentials. He warned his friends not to talk to me before my identity was established saying that he heard all about it on TV. He was of course referring to a recent TV commercial on state television showing a foreigner with a fancy mobile phone asking Egyptians about the situation in the country -- the same thing I was doing with a similar mobile phone. The ad suggested that words spoken to foreigners can destroy the nation, a strange message for a country that depends on tens of millions of foreigners visiting it every year. Perhaps it's the nature of revolutionary times that paranoia sometimes flourishes.
I didn't have a press card to show, not even a business card, but I shot back at him that I was just as much of an Egyptian and patriot as he was. An exaggeration, perhaps, but I am the proud holder of an Egyptian national identity card, having obtained the nationality two years earlier. I guess this was enough proof of my non-spy status because his friends shut him down, thankfully, and we had a nice long discussion about business. It turned out to be astonishingly upbeat.
According to Rabie, a tall athletic young man originally from Aswan, business has been good for the last year or so. "We suffered for about four months during and after the revolution when business went down drastically. But now, we're back to normal. Recent events haven't affected us at all."
This statement is rather surprising in view of the publicised complaints by tourism businesses. It also contradicts what I was later told by a nearby camel operator and by the manager of an up-market restaurant nearby. Still, Rabie, who owns five shops in the commercial strip known as Al-Khan Bazaar, insisted that business was "getting better all the time". I was sceptical, thinking maybe he was putting on a brave face -- or being patriotic in case I really was a spy.
Rabie's optimism was bolstered by the view of the owner of a nearby gym. Ahmed, a bodybuilder in his late 20s, said that his Power Gym, which he proudly claimed is patronised by a mixed crowd of both locals and resident foreigners of both sexes, is back to 80 per cent of its pre-revolution level.
Why have they not suffered like the rest of the country? I had to ask.
Rabie, now speaking as a publicist for his up and coming neighbourhood, said, "Nabq Bay's situation is better than most because the hotels here are newer and nicer than anywhere else in the country."
Pointing in the direction of the five-star hotels across the street, each the size of a small village and all overlooking the pristine waters of the Gulf of Aqaba, Rabie's tone became even more animated. "When the tourists come out of their hotels at night and take a walk, they all end up here."
The reality may not be all that rosy. After talking to Rabie, I went into a nearby restaurant for a late lunch. There, Youssef the manager intimated that business is still suffering. "Of course business has declined since the revolution and it's still wobbly. Even though Rafah is 400 kilometres away, on the day of the attack, no one left their hotel."
When I pointed out that this was not the impression I got from bazaar shop owners, Youssef shook his head dismissively. "Those guys just negotiated a 50 per cent reduction in rent from the landlord on account of the slowdown."
He also told me that tourists who had planned to go to Jerusalem from Sharm El-Sheikh had to cancel their trips, which didn't make much sense since tourists staying in five-star hotels rarely book the 10-hour car ride to Jerusalem. Most would fly, meaning that border incidents shouldn't alter their plans. But for some reason Youssef thought this was a relevant point that should be taken into consideration.
Not all tourists took note of what had happened in Rafah. Demi and Dave, an Irish couple having an intimate chat over coffee at an almost-empty Starbucks, seemed oblivious to the country's political and security issues.
"We're on vacation!" Demi exclaimed. "If we watch TV, it's the Olympics or a movie."
Only a few weeks earlier, the couple had no idea they were coming to Egypt. They wanted to take a beach vacation and were shopping around for bargains. The best deal they could find was here. "Our travel agent found us a last-minute deal for two weeks on the Red Sea at a great hotel."
The couple was vaguely aware that there had been a revolution in Egypt "a while back", which was not a problem for them as they were aware that Sinai had never been in the heat of things. As for what had happened in Rafah just two days earlier, it was news to them.
Still, they didn't "feel safe", they told me. The reason had nothing to do with revolutionary turmoil in Cairo, Bedouin kidnappings in St Catherine, attacks on the borders, or bloody confrontations in Gabal Al-Halal. What worried them were the vendors. "On the way over here, a camel driver followed us for half a mile," David revealed with a frown. "He was badgering us and wouldn't stop joking about how many camels I would take in exchange for Demi."
Touts have been a serious problem at Egypt's tourist sites for a long time. In Dahab, where I spend much of my time, there is a section of the main beach that I love but avoid at all cost because within 100 steps about 25 peddlers try to convince you to come into their restaurants and shops. The experience is nerve-wracking.
Interesting, I thought, that the patriots at the kiosk had assured me there were no touts in Nabq Bay and that it was one of the reasons their businesses continue to thrive. Rabie jokingly said that business would be ruined if "the guys from Luxor" came, a reference to the rather heavy-handed ways of shop owners in another famous tourist haunt.
So is the future of tourism in Egypt in peril from aggressive camel drivers and touts?
Judging by the smooth-talking Hamada, taking a camel ride along the palm-lined boulevard of this desert oasis would be quite enjoyable. But then again, Hamada and I are close friends. We have known each other for all of 25 minutes and he has already recommended me to Bedouin friends in central Sinai, given me phone numbers, offered me tourism tips, and if it weren't Ramadan, the month of fasting for devout Muslims, I'm sure I would have wangled a cup or two of scented tea from him.
Hamada could be a movie extra with his sunglasses, studiously-trimmed beard, and baby-blue kufiya (scarf). Sitting in the shade of a billboard, he was keeping an eye on the empty street and his three camels. Early in our conversation, he waxed lyrical about Nabq Bay telling me how nice it is to be in a place that has great restaurants, lots of parking, few vendors, wide boulevards, and fancy hotels. But business is not what it used to be, he admitted.
"Before, business was better and money was good," stated Hamada. "Now everyone needs to work two jobs to get by and people have become greedy."
Greed partially explains the aggressive behaviour of the camel driver who harassed the Irish couple, but it's not the only explanation. Normally, camel drivers get their business from tourists who venture out on short safari trips into the desert. As fewer and fewer tourists are willing to do that because of safety concerns, the camel drivers now loiter in front of hotels and on a slow day can get rather desperate for a fare. No excuse, of course, but an explanation.
Hamada gave me some insight into the recent pattern of lawlessness in Sinai. "Bedouins in Sharm El-Sheikh make jewellery and have supermarkets, but those in the mountains have nothing but drugs and smuggling."
Hamada's statement offers food for thought. Now, with the "security campaign" underway in central and northern Sinai focussing on the elimination of smugglers, what alternative livelihood is being offered to the desert inhabitants? "Arresting criminals" doesn't motivate people to abide by the law; jobs and ownership do. Recent reports of government plans to offer Bedouins title deeds to their land in Sinai are reassuring. This and other such measures may be more effective in the long-term than shock troops storming mountain hideouts at dawn.
I spent over an hour talking to Hamada and taking pictures of him and Casanova, the eldest and best-dressed of his camels. And, when leaving, I tried to give him some money for his time he pushed my hand away gently, telling me to mention the "world-famous Egyptian hospitality" in my article.
Egyptian hospitality comes at a steep discount these days. Competition among five-star hotels in Sharm El-Sheikh has pushed down prices there to three-star levels. This explains why Nabq Bay hotels have an average occupancy rate of 85 per cent despite revolution, turmoil and touts.
The men in the small shops may be happy that a steady stream of middle-class Russians, Italians, Britons, Latvians and Poles still wander into their shops for bargain knock-offs at sunset. But, for the hotels, this is not the best of times.
Nabq Bay hotels are not your average bay-view high rises. They are sprawling, low-rise affairs with massive grounds, extensive beaches, multiple swimming pools and a variety of dining facilities. It's not unusual to have to take a golf cart to get around. Most of these hotels market themselves as all-inclusive destinations in the sense that you never have to leave the grounds unless you have the urge to explore. By explore, I mean either an elaborate desert safari or a simple walk across the street to a popular American franchise.
Typically, Nabq Bay's hotel architecture is soft and dreamy, with influences that could have easily come from Nubia or the American southwest. The colours are earth tones or pastels, conducive to relaxation after a day of sun tanning and snorkelling. The Soweto Bar in the posh Amwaj Hotel is a more adventurous variation on the theme. Its two huge flat screens were showing the Olympic Games when Wael, a senior manager coming from his morning rounds, motioned for me to sit next to him in a leopard print chair.
A soft-spoken man in his early 30s, Wael likes the concept of Nabq Bay but is worried about its prospects. "It's more spacious and better planned than Sharm El Sheikh," he told me. But now, investors are hesitant to move forward. Pointing to the north, Wael told me of a major project on hold. "Plans were made for a shopping mall the size of a small town and a huge entertainment complex, but investors are waiting for stability and security to return," he confided.
Despite the Rafah incident, there have been no cancellations at Amwaj, but if the situation continues to discourage tourism consequences may be dire. For now, big hotels such as this one are lowering their prices in what is known in hotel lingo as "aggressive marketing". The downside of aggressive marketing is that it will ultimately affect quality.
"Lowering prices is a very tough decision," Wael explained, "but if you don't do it, you can't compete. It's a bad decision because quality and service suffer, and it's difficult to come back from that."
Elias, executive manager of a European five-star hotel down the road, agrees. He had to make drastic price cuts to stay afloat; this helped keep occupancy at the usual 80 per cent or so, but at what cost? "The hotels are driving each other down," Elias complained. "Soon we won't be able to compete (quality-wise) with other all-inclusive destinations like Mexico."
He wished Egypt had a hotel association capable of coordinating prices in a way that ensures sustainability. Cutting prices is a short-term solution, but it can have serious long-term effects for the industry as a whole, he told me.
For now, it seems that the big hotels are footing the bill for the small guys. By charging less, the five-star establishments are bringing in tourists in almost pre-revolution numbers. These tourists cross the street to buy souvenirs from the bazaars, keeping bazaar owners in business. Some of them might even claim that things are as good as they have ever been, but the truth is more subtle. Unless things turn around it's only a matter of time before everyone feels the crunch.
Speaking of his restaurant chain, Youssef says that it will be able to absorb losses for two, even three years, "but the smaller guys won't last that long."
What will they do? For now, Hamada is grooming Casanova and waiting for his next fare. The other camel operator is aggressively pursuing tourists and probably chasing them out of the country. The bazaar owners are wary of spies, but positive about the future. And everyone agrees that Nabq Bay is the best neighbourhood in Sharm El-Sheikh.
Amid all the turmoil there is still a hint of optimism; a frail sense of confidence endures with a hope that the next plane will bring in all-inclusive customers who will venture out of their hotels and experience the "world-famous Egyptian hospitality".