Crash means gloomy days ahead for Egypt's tourist jewel

Jay Deshmukh
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Tourists sunbathe in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on November 7, 2015

Tourists sunbathe in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on November 7, 2015 (AFP Photo/Mohamed el-Shahed)

Sharm el Sheikh (Egypt) (AFP) - Mohammed Mansour worries that the Russian tourists at his hotel could be the last for some time after Moscow stopped flights to Egypt over the downing of a Russian airliner.

"About 50 percent of my hotel occupants are Russians," Mansour, manager of a leading five-star hotel in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, told AFP.

"The blow comes just ahead of the peak holiday season of Christmas and New Year."

"Since the 2011 revolution, the Germans, French and other Europeans are already coming in small numbers," Mansour said, referring to the uprising that toppled longtime president Hosni Mubarak.

"Now if the Russians avoid coming, Sharm el-Sheikh will be doomed."

"I don't know what happens tomorrow," he said, adding that more than 100 Russians were currently still at the hotel.

On Friday, President Vladimir Putin ordered all Russian flights to Egypt to cease after Cairo and Moscow initially dismissed a claim by the Islamic State group that it downed the plane flying from Sharm el-Sheikh to Saint Petersburg, killing all 224 on board.

Nine of those killed in the October 31 crash had stayed in Mansour's hotel, including a woman and her two children, he said.

Mounting evidence that the Airbus A-321 was downed by a bomb has prompted several governments to warn their citizens against travelling to the Red Sea resort.

But Putin's order on Friday delivered a devastating blow to what is easily the jewel of Egyptian tourism and a favourite holiday hub for Russians.

- 'Look at the chaos' -

The resort, long promoted by Egypt for its pristine beaches and scuba diving, has attracted millions of tourists a year, including hundreds of thousands of Russians and Britons.

Before Putin's decision, some two dozen flights a day had ferried thousands of tourists between Sharm el-Sheikh and Russia.

Moscow said that nearly 80,000 Russians were in Egypt on Saturday.

Hundreds queued at Sharm el-Sheikh airport, waiting for their bags to be screened and hoping they could fly out.

"I really don't care what happens to Egyptian tourism now. I just want to go home safe," said Alessandra Kondratieva.

Tourists said many people would also avoid Sharm el-Sheikh because of the way airlines handled the situation in the crash aftermath.

"Look at the chaos. Nobody knows anything," said Bhuvesh Patel, an investment banker from London who has been stranded with his three-year-old son and pregnant wife.

"This puts a negative spin on the holidays and makes you think never to come back."

Sharm el-Sheikh had already been badly hit in 2005 when a series of bombings killed nearly 70 people, but it soon bounced back.

However, what happened to the Saint Petersburg flight could haunt the town for a long time.

"Tourism in Sharm is driven by Russians," said a senior official with one foreign airline, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Russian tourists are very resort-based, and Sharm meets that profile."

"But Russians are also very disciplined. They take their government's decisions very seriously. At least for the near term, tourism in Sharm will be hit."

- Jihadist attacks -

Every fifth Russian tourist going abroad flies to Egypt, Russian tourism officials say, adding that even the turmoil that followed the 2013 ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi failed to curb their numbers.

Tourism has faltered in Egypt since the anti-Mubarak uprising in 2011, however.

Instability and a rising tide of attacks claimed by jihadists have deterred many would-be visitors, damaging the economy and sending foreign exchange reserves plunging.

Last year, just under 10 million tourists visited Egypt, sharply down on the 15 million who came in 2010.

Tourism accounts for about 12 percent of Egypt's gross domestic product and some 15 percent of its foreign exchange reserves.

And much of this comes from Sharm el-Sheikh.

Once a remote beach on the shores of the Red Sea, the town thrives all year.

Attractions such as Soho Square are popular for their brightly lit streets, cafes, pubs and children's parks.

"All this will just die if the Russians and Britishers stop coming," one tourist guide told AFP of Soho Square.

"The consensus among intelligence agencies has emerged that an explosive device was planted on the plane, that Sharm el-Sheikh airport was infiltrated," said Fawaz Gerges, professor at the London School of Economics.

"Imagine the long term impact of this. Sharm el-Sheikh is a lifeline... It is the only bright spot for Egyptian tourism and now it has been dealt a devastating blow."