Saturday,21 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1154, (27 June - 3 July 2013)
Saturday,21 July, 2018
Issue 1154, (27 June - 3 July 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Even in Taba

On her trip to far away Sinai, Nora Koloyan-Keuhnelian observed how tourism was affected by the current political turmoil

Al-Ahram Weekly

Our trip to Taba was decided a few weeks before the kidnapping of the seven Egyptian soldiers in Rafah, Sinai last month. There were a few cancellations from some of the participants even after the release of the soldiers. I never thought of cancelling the trip as I always believed that Egypt was safe despite the security situation especially after the 25 January Revolution. I also had the impression that the president wanted to get rid of Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. So the kidnap story didn’t worry me at the time. Besides, I wanted to visit that precious piece of land that was occupied by Israel and returned to Egypt in 1989 upon an agreement that was signed between the two countries. Although most of Sinai was returned to Egypt in 1982, Taba was the last piece of land to be returned. As part of that agreement, international travellers were allowed to cross from Israel at the Eilat-Taba border crossing and visit Sharm El-Sheikh, Nuweiba, Dahab and St Catherine.
Recently, Al-Naqb Airport was upgraded and renamed Taba International Airport to handle charter flights from England, Belgium, Russia and The Netherlands. On 17 June an armed gang managed to steal the belongings of 14 airport workers who were in a microbus on the Nakhl-Taba international road on their way to Taba Airport. The stolen belongings were five laptops, 20 mobile phones, golden rings, clothes, shoes, food and LE60,000. The gang managed to remove the microbus’s recording device and fled. According to the airport workers and other witnesses, the gang was in a car with no licence plates.
The distance from Cairo to Taba was around 360km. The touristic resorts are located 20km south of Taba. We passed through three checkpoints: the Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel, Temed point and Naqb security. Security forces at the checkpoints were very cooperative, doing their job: checking IDs of all 60 Egyptian passengers and wishing them a safe trip. The moment the bus parked in front of the resort, we were welcomed by thousands of locusts that stayed with us for the entire period. The resort was almost deserted of tourists. Our group raised the hotel’s occupancy from five per cent to 30 per cent. “It’s been three years of suffering from a continuous decrease in the hotel’s occupancy,” said Tamer, the front desk supervisor. “Before the revolution our resort’s occupancy ranged from 80 per cent to 90 per cent all through the year.”
Tamer said after the revolution the hotel’s sales department started to work on tourists from different nationalities and prepare various programmes to attract them. “For example, South Africans who go to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage now have the chance to pass by our resort and stay from three to four nights.” Other nationalities the hotel is trying to attract include Slovenians and travellers from Belarus. “Each year that passes the category we work on to attract to our resort becomes of less quality, unfortunately,” said Tamer, “and this year the room rates were decreased by 30 per cent compared to last year.” For this reason packages prepared for a stay in this resort are either a week or a fortnight.
On the rocky beach of the resort I met Mohamed the lifeguard who was happy to see some tourists around. Mohamed was born in Luxor but never worked there. After he finished his military service he came to Taba to work. “I’ve been working here since 2011. Tourism is deteriorating everyday as is the category of tourists visiting Taba. I love dealing with British tourists. They are very polite, more polite than you can imagine, while Arab-Israelis are the worst guests, I am sorry to say. Since Morsi came to office everything went wrong. I am praying to God to take him and his party out of this country. What we’re going through is more than enough,” complained Mohamed, whose monthly salary is LE900. “I’ll take part in the demonstrations on 30 June to oust the president.”
While looking at the not-so-calm sea, I noticed a Bedouin walking with his camel at the shore. He stayed there for a while trying to attract tourists until I asked him about the cost of a ride on the camelback. “LE20 to LE30,” he replied. Mohamed could not recall how long he had been working there. “It’s been a long time. I used to work more in the past. Now I sit for hours with my camel doing nothing.”
The professional level of the workers in the resort was not up to the standard in all departments of the hotel. While dining one night, I asked the waiter to get me a glass of Egyptian wine and I requested him to tell me about the brands available. “Madam, it’s Egyptian wine,” he replied. After I tried to explain to him my question, he finally replied “Oh, it’s made of grapes.”
Obviously the number of employees working in the resort decreased during the past couple of years and the hotel stopped employing people for high wages. “We got rid of all those who weren’t working under contract,” said Tamer, 27, a graduate of Alexandria University’s Faculty of Tourism and Hotel Management. “And as the tourism rate is dropping and we are a private sector company, the investor will not be happy to lose or close the resort, so they choose to employ middle class labour this time of the year or sometimes get employees from other departments of the hotel to work in a different department.”
We took the yellow submarine glass boat to explore Taba’s marine life and went near Pharaohs Island located 8km south of Taba where Salaheddin Castle stands, one of the most important Islamic monuments in Sinai built by Salaheddin Al-Ayoubi at the end of the 12th century AD. The castle had been set up to secure the Aqaba Gulf. It was Friday and we noticed a two-storey ship standing very close to the island where people were spending their day barbequing, swimming and diving. I was told that the passengers on the deck were Jordanians who usually come and spend their Fridays in that spot. A noticeable number of tourists were entering the citadel to explore. While standing on top of the highest point in the citadel, you can clearly see the borders of three countries: Saudi Arabia, Jordan and occupied Palestine.
The animation team of the resort, Andre and Sukaina, also face problems in their field these days. Andre, 18, is an Italian who has been working to entertain guests at the resort for the past year. But he feels bored. “I will not be able to continue working here in Taba. I used to work in Turkey and Morocco among a group of 20 people, a whole animation team. I will go back to my country Italy and probably will change my career, too.”
Taba is a frequent vacation spot for Israelis, too, but Tamer objects. “Everybody thinks that Taba is a host to Israeli tourists, but this is a wrong impression. They spend their vacations only in hotels near the borders, like the Hilton. Meanwhile, Arab Israelis come and spend their holiday in our resort and the resorts around us, and I would tell you they are fertile. A family has from three to four children. Arab Israeli guests are different in their manners; sometimes they could be very ill-mannered.”
In October 2004, Hilton Taba was rocked by a bomb that killed 34 people (18 Egyptians, 12 Israelis, two Italians, one Russian and an American) and wounding some 159 others. A truck drove into the lobby of the hotel and exploded. Ten floors of the hotel collapsed following the blast. According to the Egyptian government at that time, the bombers were Palestinians who had tried to enter Israel to carry out attacks there but were not successful.
Locusts were still around until we left the resort. “This is a new phenomenon to our resort. We never had those invading locust before. The resort has a contract with a company that fights locusts and they spray chemicals every day at sunset to kill them,” said Tamer. And yes, everyday after sunset we find dead locusts around, but more of them come around and fill the sky scaring our children more.
As for future reservations the front desk supervisor stated that there are no reservations so far for the coming couple of months, as everybody is waiting for the 30 June demonstrations. “Future reservations depend on how the media is representing Egypt in other countries, which could be sometimes exaggerated.”

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