With Russian Tourists Gone, Sinai Bets on Influx of Israelis

Direct flights from Israel have inspired hope in the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, ailing from the loss of Russian and Ukrainian tourists following the war

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Russian tourists take photos in Sharm el-Sheikh, south Sinai, Egypt, in 2015.
Russian tourists take photos in Sharm el-Sheikh, south Sinai, Egypt, in 2015.Credit: Thomas Hartwell / AP
איתן לשם
Eitan Leshem
איתן לשם
Eitan Leshem

Sharm el-Sheikh has no traffic lights. The town’s transportation system is at once intriguing and terrifying, based on left-hand U-turns. On one hand, there’s no need to wait at red lights, on the other, you enter into traffic from the left. Lord have mercy.

Recently, the municipality made another glorious U-turn: Reinstating direct flights from Ben-Gurion International Airport. Last Sunday, exactly 40 years after the last Israel Air Force plane took off from Ophira airport, a plane emblazoned with the Israeli flag landed once again.

Like the hotels in the region – which were once Egyptian, became Israeli, and then Egyptian again – the airport was not destroyed when Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula in 1982. Rather, it was sold to Egypt whole. As a result, the resort town is the pride of Egypt and the private baby of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. And now Israelis are returning en masse.

The Farsha mountain lounge areas in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, last summer.Credit: Serhio Magpie

Several days before the era of direct flights began, we traveled to the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula to get a sense of what Israelis can expect. With every connecting flight, the game changing potential of direct flights became clearer.

“Sharm el-Sheikh gives me nightmares,” says Alex, a 70-year-old member of the ground staff at Ben Gurion International Airport. He is part of a special program that brought pensioners out of retirement (some of whom only retired due to the COVID-19 crisis), to bolster staff during one of the most chaotic periods the aviation business has ever seen.

The chronic staff shortages, exacerbated by a wave of redundancies and unpaid leave, and combined with ever changing COVID-19 regulations has resulted in organizational chaos, which manifests in massive queues and confused travelers. Alex and his colleagues have been hired to assist passengers and relieve some of the pressure.

Russian tourists gather at the Egyptair check-in desk at the Domodedovo International Airport outside Moscow, Russia, last summer.Credit: AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr

“That’s where the Yom Kippur war started for me,” Alex says, running through his associations with the town. While the resort town has become a popular tourist destination for Europeans and is marketed by the Egyptians and their president as a “city of peace,” this will not be the last time that the dreamy vacation spot at the southern tip of the Sinai is haunted by its past. “I haven’t set foot there since,” Alex adds, gesturing toward the correct queue.

A sense of security

The new wall surrounding the city is immediately visible upon exiting Sharm el-Sheikh’s airport. The wall was built as part of an Egyptian initiative to protect travelers from the reality. To one side, the wild and rugged Sinai mountains burst from the landscape – by all accounts, harboring vigilantes and evil-doers. On the other side lie grandiose resorts, each with its own, private coral reef, offering a colorful and effortless scuba diving experience, just a short golf cart ride away. In the middle, the wall, with a peace sign painted every 100 meters. It would be curious to see what symbols are drawn on the other side.

Gold Beach at the Reef Oasis Beach Resort, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.Credit: Serhio Magpie

The Egyptians work hard to project a sense of security with the help of exaggerated and somewhat absurd spectacles. It’s unclear, for example, how effective a lone armed guard behind an antique iron checkpoint would be against terrorists. Nonetheless, the anxiety has a clear impact, though it dissipates when one takes in the full view of the Sinai mountains.

“Our president loves hosting conferences here,” our taxi driver Ata says, justifying the wall’s construction. Ata comes to Sharm for two months at a time to work, and then visits his family for a week in Cairo. “Sisi is doing plenty. He invests in education, we finally have better roads in Cairo, but the prices are insane,” he says, referring to the high cost of living and heavy tax burden felt by Egyptians over the past two years. “Income take is steady at 25%, but the prices of gas and bread have gone up. It’s crazy.”

Ata says that he believes Anwar Sadat was the best leader Egypt ever had: “He understood that we had to move on. He also brought us victory after our great defeat. I don’t mean to offend you, but he promised us quiet and stability by making peace with Israel. He was assassinated for that.” Ata turns and plays a voice message he received from an Israeli tourist looking to book a ride from the Taba border crossing to Sharm el-Sheikh. “You know, we maybe not come because of the ‘matzav bitchoni,’” the Israeli tourist says over the speaker. Once we explain to Ata that “matzav bitchoni” means “security situation” in Hebrew, he sinks into a state of silent reflection until we arrive at the over-the-top hotel lobby.

Coffee being prepared in Sharm el-Sheikh.Credit: Eitan Leshem

It doesn’t take particularly keen senses to gauge the present mood in Sharm el-Sheikh. The town is half empty. It’s heart-wrenching to watch the hotel entertainer jump and clap as he plays Algerian singer Khaled’s dance hit, “C’est la Vie,” to dozens of unoccupied chairs. Two older, drunk and sleepy European tourists sit among the empty rows. A janitor takes a break from his work, watching the show with the dedication that any performer would want from his audience.

Admittedly, it is early in the season, summer hasn’t started, and we arrived before the direct flights from Israel began. Yet, every other person in town is bemoaning the brutal Russian war in Ukraine. Until recently, many of the tourists in Sharm el-Sheikh were from one of those two neighboring countries, before President Vladimir Putin decided to send his troops to fight civilians in Ukrainian cities.

The shock waves from the war reverberate far beyond Ukraine. In Naama Bay, the shops with Russian signs lie virtually empty. Upon hearing we are from Israel, every merchant in this city of merchants (along with the occasional taxi driver or tour guide, who has a diving equipment business on the side) responds with “welcome back” in Hebrew. They all immediately want to know exactly when direct flights will commence.

Russian tourists shop in the Old Market in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in 2015. Credit: AP Photo/Ahmed Abd el-Latif

“I have lots of Israeli friends,” Hamed, a store owner in the Sharm el-Sheikh’s Old Market, yells toward us. He shows us video after video of Israeli customers, many of whom call him “king,” likely after receiving a discount on a galabiya. Hamed says that one Israeli woman even begged him to marry her, but he claims that the Egyptian authorities aren’t too enthused about anyone crossing the northern border. “They suspect you, and make it difficult. You may not be able to come back,” he says.

Like many other market stall owners and merchants throughout the city, he admits there is no work. With all due respect to the Italian and English tourists, he says, they are waiting for the Israelis. Even before direct flights began, many Israelis used to visit Sharm el-Sheikh. The pandemic changed that, and it has yet to return to normal. In cities that are dependent on tourism, the effect is more pronounced. “[Israelis] like buying a lot of things,” Hamed smiles. “Even ‘48 Arabs would come here and buy heaps,” he says in reference to Israeli Arabs, “they have money.” In his 20 years of selling, he has never encountered a Palestinian from the West Bank, and it’s impossible not to think about the thin line that turned one group into tourists and the other into refugees.

Vintage artifacts for sale in Sharm el-Sheikh.Credit: Serhio Magpie

Until the Israelis arrive and replace the absent Russians and Ukrainians, the merchants try an sell us a copper lamp, or at least a fridge magnet of a camel (anyone need a pyramid shaped ashtray?). “Good price, come inside.” We promise them that the Israelis are on their way, along with their money, and flee a fate that includes that perforated, rusty lamp.

Forgotten by the side of the road

In many ways Sharm el-Sheikh is the worst nightmare of environmental and public rights activists. The bulk of the coastline – 20 km (about 12.4 miles) of deep blue ocean surrounded by desert – belongs to the resorts, large high-end hotels, and seaside eateries. Public beaches are scarce and difficult to locate between all the hubbub. Even worse, come charge an entrance fee. There is no public transportation. Outside the exclusive vacation spots, Sharm el-Sheikh’s forgotten residents walk by the side of the road, dragging wagons full of wood behind them. Beggars stand in the middle of the road, their misery seemingly among the most miserable poverty. Maybe this is because they form such a contrast to the disproportionate, absurd, and disconnected wealth of the surrounding hotels.

A resort pool in Sharm el-Sheikh. The poverty of the residents stands in sharp contrast to the opulence of the resorts.Credit: Eitan Leshem

Just like many other vacation spots in northern Sinai, which are more familiar to the bungalow-loving Israeli crowd, the disparity between the facade and the interior is evident here as well. While Sharm el-Sheik’s coastline boasts palm trees, green grass, water slides and super-yachts, the interior is littered with unfinished or run-down structures, massive construction sites that never seem to near ocmpletion, mountains of trash, and a kind of lassitude that contrasts the vitality performed by the five-star resort staff. In this line of work, no one can be that genuinely vibrant.

At the day’s end, when the heavy heat lifts, Sharm el-Sheikh enters its second phase. The bikinis and snorkels are swapped for jeans and dresses. As the first three stars appear in the sky, tourists descend on the entertainment venues and shopping centers at SOHO Square, the Old Market and Naama Bay – which, in turn, transform into night bazaars filled with restaurants and small bars. And yet, the notion of “night life” is somewhat misleading once you stand in the middle of the hottest nightclub, “Buddha Bar” and (accidently!) find yourself listening to four drunk Brits enthusiastically discussing the bidet in their hotel. Compared to the other option – a belly dancing performance against the background of ear-splitting music in the neighboring restaurant – the bidet chat wins. I imagine that the banter around the blackjack tables in the casino was even worse. So, in the end, the day wins out over the night.

We met Itzik and Mariela in the dining room of one of the city’s all-inclusive resorts (equipped with a coral reef, mini bar and all-night shawarma tortillas). The two Eilat residents have been in Sinai for 12 days. Itzik was employed as a tour guide until the pandemic destroyed most of his industry – though he claims that Eilat was finished long before COVID-19. “Lots of Russians used to come to Eilat, because they could meet plenty others who spoke their language and it was relatively cheap. They don’t come to Eilat anymore, they come here. I think it started because of Bibi, people just started hating Israel,” he claims.

A pier leading to a private beach. Public beaches are few and far between.Credit: Eitan Leshem

Like most Israelis over 50, Itzik has fond memories of Sinai. “All the fisherman would come here. That’s what slackers called themselves, they would pretend to be on a fishing trip and just lay on the beach all day. I used to work here all summer, for three months, at Hotel Ophira – the first one to open in Sharm el-Sheikh. It was like paradise,” Itzik reminisces.

Hotel Ophira was evacuated 40 years ago, on the eve of Passover in 1982. Strolling along the sands in the evening, across the stunning Ras Um Sid Bal, or towards El Fanar Beach (the best place to watch a sunset), as the colors dance across the sky, even the staunchest peacenik could feel a twinge of regret, but not Itzik.

“I love the Sinai, I had more fun here than anywhere else, but I supported the withdrawal,” he admits in a hushed tone, suddenly serious. “I’ll let you in on a secret, I am also in favor of handing back Judea and Samaria. I’m reading a book of interviews with Marek Edelman, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. He was a staunch anti-Zionist. Even back then he said that we have no chance of surviving here if we don’t make peace with the Arabs.” He glances at his watch, “Sorry, we have a reservation. We’re having Brazilian food this time,” abandoning the geopolitical conversation as quickly as he started it.

As Itzik retreated I was reminded of one of the ever-present yet distant elements at Sharl el-Sheikh. Tiran Island is visible from every part of Sharm el-Sheikh, a formation of brown desert erupting from the blue sea. The closure of the Tiran Straits, 56 years ago, served as a catalyst for the Six Day War. Egypt recently transfered the island to Saudi Arabia, with Israel’s approval, of course. Every day, boats head for the island, loaded with tourists looking to dive at the authentic wild coral reefs.And so, Israelis depart from Egypt to a Saudi-controlled island, brandishing snorkels instead of guns, only an hour flight from Tel Aviv. The Middle East exists. Someone go wake up Shimon Peres.

Tiran Island can be seen rising out of the ocean in the distance.Credit: Eitan Leshem

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