After Years in the Wilderness, Israelis Return to Sinai’s Beaches

Egyptian peninsula was long considered out of bounds for Israelis, but they’re venturing south once more – and it's not just hippies.

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Israelis on the beach in Sinai.
Israelis on the beach in Sinai.Credit: Elam Nussbaum
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad
Roy (Chicky) Arad
Roy Arad

From my very first minute back in Sinai, everything thrilled me: The laziness of the Egyptian border control officials; haggling with the cabdrivers, who left me sitting on a rock for ages in order to raise their price; the local mineral water. Over the years I have covered various attempts to find a replacement for Sinai – Northern Cyprus, Aqaba, India. We wrote “The real substitute for Sinai” in our headlines (it draws web traffic). But all were cheap alternatives. I haven’t been to Sinai for six years and I felt like someone returning to his beloved after a long spell in solitary confinement. But would Sinai still love me?

Even though we agreed to a “special” cab ride, Khaled, the driver, still picked up an Israeli couple on the way. It didn’t bother me. I was enchanted. You could have put me in the trunk and I still would have been smiling. The young man accompanying me in the cab looked like he voted for centrist party Yesh Atid, while the driver complimented his partner, saying she looked like Mizrahi singer Zehava Ben.

The man didn’t want to sleep in a hut. “I’m done with that, bro,” he told me, saying he’d reserved two nights at a luxury hotel for 1,000 shekels ($264). I remember going to Sinai with the family once and we went to one of those hotels. They didn’t have Turkish coffee; it was terrible.

Sinai has beaches that consist of some 20 camps of huts, offering accommodations at all price levels – with the cheapest starting at only 20 shekels a night. Even though I wanted to go to the fashionable Camp Ayesh at Ras Satan, Khaled stopped at Sunrise on the Bir Suwair beach, where he’s sure to get a tip. He claimed Ayesh was full.

A man rides a camel on a beach in Sinai.
One of the quieter beaches in Sinai.Credit: Elam Nussbaum

But I know cab drivers’ tricks, so in the end Khaled relented and drove me to Ayesh ... where it turned out he was telling the truth. The place was full. Of Israelis. They really have returned to Sinai, big-time. And not just hippies. Most were normal Israelis, a lot of young people straight out of the army, a divorced woman reading a self-help book with her back to the sea, and a lot of families that didn’t want to mortgage their homes in order to stay at a B&B for a horror of a vacation that would probably lead to divorce.

It was the first time in Sinai for the young woman in the cab. She got all excited when we stopped at Bir Suwair. Her partner didn’t want to get out of the taxi. I went to relieve myself in the sea and when I came back, tried to get her away from her boyfriend who wanted a hotel. She needed to leave him, I thought. Later Khaled told me I partly succeeded. They abandoned the hotel in Nuweiba after a few hours in favor of the huts. “Hotels are for rich thieves only,” Khaled told me.

The beach at Bir Suwair was under Israeli control, too. The Miami and Aqua-Sun camps were full; Alexandria was almost full; and the rest each had a few Israelis on every beach. There was also the occasional Egyptian hipster who looked Israeli. I stayed at Sunrise. I planned to move, but it was too perfect to relocate.

The exchange rate for the Egyptian pound has fallen, but other than that Sinai feels exactly like it did when I abandoned it. On the way to the resort, there were more checkpoints and sleepy Egyptian soldiers with machine guns. A Bedouin I spoke to, who has a family in the north where the fighting is, said the Egyptians are destroying entire villages there and thus creating further antagonism among the population. He predicted that the fighting will continue. “No big deal, we are Bedouin. For years we didn’t live in houses,” he said, sadly.

Sunset over the Red Sea in Sinai.
Sunset over the Red Sea in Sinai.Credit: Elam Nussbaum

I cursed the weekend I surrendered to fear and didn’t come here. As if Israel wasn’t a place that the rest of the world doesn’t consider to be dangerous. But the influx of Israelis to Sinai is something new. A third of the places are abandoned, with many global tourists seeking alternative destinations. Broken straw huts and shattered pool tables.

In Camp Miami, Gil Lahav – a culinary tours wizard who organized a report on Channel 10 on the return of Israelis to Sinai – sat down next to me. He said he came to Sinai during last year’s Passover holiday, uploaded his pictures to Facebook, and the Israelis had started returning because of him. Lahav said the other beaches are angry with him because he only eats at Miami. I went to all the beaches, and at each I asked for a salad with tehina and tea.

The most pathetic argument is that those who go to Sinai are putting the public at risk. A government that does so many things to endanger its citizens in Israel and around the world cannot complain when those citizens want to relax a bit.

When we consider the security risk in traveling to Sinai, I’d argue that a risk exists by not traveling there, too. I thought a little about Moses and his wanderings around the desert for 40 years. They say it happened so the “generation of the desert” would disappear. It’s more likely that he simply wanted to stay in Sinai just a bit longer.

A beach in Sinai
A beach in Sinai.Credit: Elam Nussbaum