The so-called ‘jewel’ in Egypt’s Red Sea tourist crown is currently enjoying an enforced isolation. Direct flights from the UK to Sharm el Sheikh are banned and, following Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice, travelling there through the surrounding Sinai Peninsula is also off-limits. Essentially, it’s ok for Brits to be there; but unless Scotty can beam you up, it’s not okay to get there.
At least, not with a direct flight. You can, of course, still go indirect – via Cairo or intermediate countries. Or there’s the bus – the overnight coach from Cairo to Sharm takes about nine hours and costs £7. On a bid to get the cheap Red Sea holiday that Sharm (and diving-centric Dahab, up the coast) used to do so perfectly, I chose this way.
It’s around 300 miles from Cairo to Sharm, but security at the moment is tight. More than once military checkpoints required us bleary-eyed passengers – me, the only foreigner in a busload of weekending Egyptians – to disembark into the gloom and line up, bags open for inspection. Some were pulled aside for further questioning; the passport and ID checks edged into double figures. My bags were inspected, though their contents were clearly disappointing.
Finally past Sharm’s ‘ring of steel’ security cordon – tight security around the town has been a way of life there for years – we arrived in Naama Bay. On this leg, I stayed on the bus, going up the coast to Dahab. I returned to Sharm a few days later.
I’d expected a ghost town – and that’s what I found. According to independent sources, foreign tourism here is down 70 per cent, and the atmosphere was the polar opposite of what it was like before the Metrojet plane crash in October 2015. Empty hotels stood cheek by jowl with shuttered restaurants, cafes and corner supermarkets. Dormant souvenir stands proffered sphinx-themed tat. That three nights’ B&B at a four-star hotel cost me just over £40 tells you everything about the situation there at the moment.
“We had 100 per cent Russians before,” Asaad, manning the reception of the Cataract Layalina Resort, told me. “We had big tour operators. Now we have Ukrainians, Jordanians and Egyptians.” Yes, the hotel seemed quiet, he admitted, but that’s because Egyptian holidays were over. If I’d come a couple of weeks earlier, he said, I’d have found it full.
There was only one other English guest: Keith, a semi-retired Gulf expat. “The hotel’s not bad,” he shrugged. “We’ve all stayed in better, we’ve all stayed in worse. The food is acceptable, and it’s so cheap. I can’t understand why there aren’t more English. I’m here for a month – I think I might extend.”
In the heat of the day, there was little activity on the streets. I found a vaguely open bar – in the sense that it opened when I arrived – and ordered an Egyptian Stella beer. Then an English guy called “Bonkers” and his mate John arrived, both sporting pirate headscarves and shorts. “I moved out here,” Bonkers told me. “I’m on a pension now but I still do a few days DJing. I’ve never felt safer. I did the sums, and if I was still in England I’d have £3.20 a week to live on.
“It’s not for everyone [living here] but I love it,” he said. “People ask, ‘Why?’ I say, ‘Just come and have a look.’ As we talked, another couple of expats arrived. Together with Bonkers, they decided to switch to the bar offering two-for-one drinks.
I walked along Naama Bay’s sandy beach – more beautiful than ever, without the crowds to share it with – past empty sun loungers. A newspaper vendor trudged towards me, deduced I was English, and quickly proffered a copy of the previous day’s Sun. “No Russki, no English, no money,” he despaired.
Sharm’s original draw – apart from the year-round sun and affordable prices – was its Red Sea marine life. At the nearby Subex Diving Center a family of Ukrainians were talking through shore dive excursions with Fawad, the guy behind the counter. “We should be busier than we are,” he told me. “Some companies have closed. We’re connected to a hotel, and they’ve reduced the rent to help us, so they can offer a service to guests. But some hotels have closed too.” The European tourists still coming, he said, were people who already knew and loved Sharm – not newcomers.
Spending the day in a deserted Naama Bay, I’d wondered whether the tourists were all talking a mass siesta, and hordes of foreigners would emerge once night fell. Certainly, the lights came on after dark. Twinkling fairground displays blinked and flashed, illuminating every outlet. Hip-hop bass beats and oriental rhythms sounded across town. However, the brash sound and light show didn’t alter the prevailing reality – a dearth of customers. Overlooking the main drag, from the upper floor of a shopping mall, I ate at a large Lebanese-Moroccan restaurant. The service erred towards over-attentive – because for most of the time, I was the only diner.
Heading back to my hotel, I was accosted by a perfume shop owner. “Why do the English not come?” he asked me. “The revolution ended. We want tourists to come back. We all have flats, bills.” I had no answer.
I flew back to London from Sharm el Sheikh via Cairo, and airport security was among the strictest I’ve experienced. Recent rumours suggest the continued flight ban is a result of post Brexit government reshuffles. If that’s true, perhaps it’s time the moratorium was revisited. Egyptians are banking on it.