Sharm el Sheikh: Terrorism has returned to the wild and beautiful Sinai Peninsula, and the region that not long ago was one of Egypt’s most-visited destinations is facing a catastrophic collapse of its already fragile tourism economy.
Businesses reliant on tourism – from restaurants to tour operators, dive shops and souvenir sellers – have only just weathered a deathly quiet winter season after a horror three years of political unrest. They had been counting on better times.
Although the growing Islamist insurgency in North Sinai has stuck several times in the heart of Cairo in recent months, locals held onto the hope that the tourists who dive along the Red Sea coast or the pilgrims who visit St Katherine’s Monastery near Mount Sinai would go unharmed.
Yet Sunday’s bus bombing in the resort town of Taba, which killed three South Korean tourists and the bus’ Egyptian driver and injured 15 others, has dashed all hope that the region would escape the fallout from the country’s political turmoil.
The explosion, thought to have been caused by a suicide bomber who police say boarded the bus and detonated the device, ripped through the coach carrying South Korean tourists returning from a visit to St Katherine’s.
The tourists are believed to have been members of the same church group from Jincheon, Agence-France Presse reported, and were about to cross the border from Taba in Egypt into Israel when the blast occurred.
After two days of speculation, the al-Qaeda inspired Sinai-based militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, claimed responsibility for the attack. "Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has successfully sacrificed one of its heroes to detonate the bus headed toward the Zionists, and this comes as part of our economic war against this regime of traitors," the group said in a statement.
It is the latest attack in a steadily escalating Islamist insurgency that has gained pace since the Egyptian military forced the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president Mohamed Mursi to step down on July 3 last year.
Until now the wave of bombings and targeted assassinations have been directed at security, police and government installations, killing dozens of police officers, many from the North Sinai.
But as the unrest across Egypt grows, so too does the air of desperation at many of the country’s prime tourist sites.
At the Giza pyramids, animal rights groups have stepped in to feed the starving horses that used to pull tourists in carriages around the site, while along the waterfront of Dahab, tourists are so scarce that businesses are lucky to make one sale in a day.
A restaurant owner in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el Sheikh said business had been slowly picking up after a devastating two years – “last year was the very worst” – but after the Taba bombing?
“Who knows?” he said. “We were slowly getting back to around 70 per cent [capacity] but now, maybe the tours will cancel, maybe people will be scared away again.”
There is precious little traffic on the desert road that winds through the rugged mountains and valleys of the Sinai towards the ancient St Katherine’s Monastery on Monday.
An armed police escort takes a small convoy of tourist vehicles – a mix of sedans, mini-buses and a couple of small coaches – in and out of the World Heritage site and about 60 kilometres along the road towards the Red Sea towns of Dahab, Sharm el Sheikh and Nuweiba.
Security is both overwhelmingly present but alarmingly lax at the multiple checkpoints along the way. Some cars are searched by hand, not a single piece of luggage is electronically screened and buses pass through unchecked.
At the St Katherine’s Monastery, which according to UNESCO dates back to AD560s, tourist traffic is depressingly light despite the clear blue skies.
Men with tattered guidebooks in English, German and Russian compete with young children touting alabaster eggs, but no-one is buying.
“The pilgrims will always come,” a staff member at the monastery’s museum said, gesturing to the dozen or so Russian Orthodox visitors standing in reverent silence in front of the Chapel of the Burning Bush. “But what about the other tourists – they have still not returned.”
Egypt’s Minister of Tourism Hisham Zaazou recently described the country’s tourist towns as “ghost cities” as he charted the catastrophic drop in the numbers of visitors coming to Egypt.
In 2013 just 9.5 million tourists visited, compared to nearly 15 million in 2010, while some hotels in Luxor, Abu Simbel and Aswan had zero occupancy rates, The Guardian reported.
Many small business owners on the Sinai peninsula were putting on a brave face on Monday, crossing their fingers that cancellations would be at a minimum following the Taba bus bombing.
One hotel manager in Dahab said despite the security concerns he had so far had no cancellations of tours coming from the airport at Sharm el Sheikh. “We will see,” he said, “I hope it will be OK.”
But given tourism provides for 12.5 per cent of Egypt’s employment and 11.3 per cent of GDP in a country where more than one-quarter of its 85 million population lives below the poverty line, even a tiny a downturn in an already dying industry will be devastating.