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Months After ISIS Attack, Egypt’s Tourism Industry Still Paying the Price

More than 70 percent of Egypt's diving centers in the Red Sea have had to close down as tourists avoid vacationing in Egypt.

SHARM EL SHEIKH, EGYPT - OCTOBER 27: A pair of SCUBA divers swim over coral during a guided dive on October 27, 2013 in the Red Sea near the resort town of Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Sharm el-Sheikh, lying on the Red Sea coast in Egypt's South Sinai governorate, is one of Egypt's most popular destinations for tourists. Egypt's tourist industry has struggled since a popular uprising overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, and tourist numbers have taken a further dive since the Egyptian Military's overthrow of the country's first democratically elected President, Mohammed Morsi in July 2013. Sharm el-Sheikh, popular for its beachfront resorts and water sports including SCUBA diving, has faired better than some other tourist spots in the Egypt, with major hotels reporting roughly 20% occupancy during the resort's busy summer season. (Photo by ).
SHARM EL SHEIKH, EGYPT - OCTOBER 27: A pair of SCUBA divers swim over coral during a guided dive on October 27, 2013 in the Red Sea near the resort town of Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Sharm el-Sheikh, lying on the Red Sea coast in Egypt's South Sinai governorate, is one of Egypt's most popular destinations for tourists. Egypt's tourist industry has struggled since a popular uprising overthrew President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011, and tourist numbers have taken a further dive since the Egyptian Military's overthrow of the country's first democratically elected President, Mohammed Morsi in July 2013. Sharm el-Sheikh, popular for its beachfront resorts and water sports including SCUBA diving, has faired better than some other tourist spots in the Egypt, with major hotels reporting roughly 20% occupancy during the resort's busy summer season. (Photo by ).

Marjolein Morshuis’s scuba diving business once boomed with tourists eager to explore coral reefs off the shore of Hurghada, Egypt. But that was before the Islamic State blew up a Russian charter jet over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula last October, prompting Russian and British airlines to suspend flights that once brought millions of tourists to Egyptian resort towns along the Red Sea.

Where Morshuis used to easily fill her boats with 35 divers at a time, these days she’s lucky to get 10. She isn’t the only one struggling: This week, Egypt’s privately owned Youm7 newspaper reported that some 70 percent of the 246 licensed diving centers in Egypt’s Red Sea governorate have closed down, while another 20 percent of them are no longer fully operating.

The newspaper report makes all too clear what Cairo has feared for months: Egypt’s economy is paying a hefty price for the Islamic State’s attack against the Russian passenger jet. Tour companies, which provide the country’s second biggest source of income, have struggled since the terrorist attack in October to reassure foreigners that Egypt is a safe place to go on vacation.

“The absence of Russian tourists has damaged our business,” Morshuis told Foreign Policy in a phone call from Hurghada.

Soon after the Oct. 31 crash, Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended all of his country’s commercial flights to and from Egypt. That harshly curbed the flow of Russian tourists to Egypt, which numbered roughly 3 million in 2014.

Citing security concerns, all major British airliners, AirFrance, and German airline Lufthansa have also cancelled flights to Sharm el-Sheikh airport, where the ill-fated Russian flight took off.

These flight bans are turning previously bustling resort destinations into ghost towns. In January, the governor of south Sinai estimated the occupancy of hotels in Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada at less than 20 percent, and the loss in revenue at more than $250 million per month. The number of British visitors alone to Sharm el-Sheikh is reportedly down by roughly 85 percent.

Egyptian officials are desperately trying to convince European nations to resume flights to Sharm el-Sheikh airport. They have doubled the number of security personnel there, and are screening those workers as well as passengers. Additionally, the tiny airport is now deploying bomb-sniffing dogs to root out threats.

But Moscow remains unconvinced — at least so far. On Feb. 6, Russia’s minister of transport said the new precautions have yet to meet Moscow’s requirements. Meanwhile, the major British airlines maintain the flight ban; most have extended it through late May, and others even until mid-September.

Morshuis is luckier than some other Egyptian business owners: Hurghada has its own international airport that some tourists have used as an alternative to the banned Sharm el-Sheikh. Russians, however, are not among them.

“The businesses that work solely with Russian people have suffered the most,” she said.  

ED GILES/Getty Images

Henry Johnson is a fellow at Foreign Policy. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in history and previously wrote for LobeLog. @HenryJohnsoon

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