Russian Tourists Return to Beloved Egyptian Red Sea Resorts
Six years after terrorists blew up plane returning from Sharm el-Sheikh, flow of visitors resumes
They were greeted with flowers, sweets and an orchestra, and a few dozen journalists who followed every step made by the tourists who had just disembarked at Sharm el-Sheikh airport.
“The airport seemed to be empty apart from the Russians,” tourist Olga Khmiz wrote on Facebook after returning to Moscow.
Egyptian media celebrated the return of the Russian visitors to the resort centers of Sharm el-Sheikh in southern Sinai and to Hurghada, located a ferry ride away on the country’s mainland coast, with many live broadcasts and interviews with slightly embarrassed tourists who said they were happy to be back.
Six years ago an Airbus A321 operated by the Russian airline Kogalymavia (branded as Metrojet) took off from the airport. A few minutes later it disappeared from radar screens. As the investigation led by a Russian team later established, the plane was destroyed over the northern Sinai desert by an explosive device that had been planted on it and crashed, killing all 224 passengers and crew on board.
The local branch of the Islamic State terrorist organization assumed responsibility for downing the plane. All Russian flights to Egypt were soon suspended by the executive order of President Vladimir Putin.
During the last six years, several Russian delegations have inspected Egyptian airports, checking the facilities and the security procedures. Thousands of Egyptian hoteliers, tour guides, drivers and travel agents closely followed the never-ending process – after all, their wages depend on the resumption of Russian tourism. In 2014, over three million Russians visited Egypt, primarily the Red Sea resorts Sharm of el-Sheikh and Hurghada. The halt of Russian visitors was a serious blow to the Egyptian economy.
“Sharm el-Sheikh needs the Russian tourists. Egypt needs the Russian tourists,” said Muhammad Ramadan, a Russian-speaking tour guide based in Sharm el-Sheikh.
“Until this horrible incident happened, the town was awash with tourists from cities from all across Russia. In the last few years, Sharm was quite empty, although we also have tourism from other countries. The Russians love the Red Sea and Egypt, and we are very happy that they are back. The state invested a lot in beefing up security at the airports,” Ramadan said.
For now only regularly scheduled flights are operating; the cheaper charter flights will be available in the fall. Egyptair, the national carrier, will operate 20 direct flights weekly between the Russian capital and the resorts, and Rossiya Airlines, a subsidiary of state-owned carrier Aeroflot, will also have some flights. Currently, there will be no flights between Egypt’s resorts and other Russian cities, including St. Petersburg. The average cost of one week stay in an all-inclusive hotel, including flights, ranges between $1,000 and $1,600 for two persons, significantly more than a similar package in Turkey or Cyprus.
On their way back from Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada the passengers from Russia and other countries will have to pass through 15 security checks, and they will pass through a separate corridor on their way to a separate waiting area prior to boarding.
Security staff will check each item the passengers bring with them. The procedures will start at the hotels, as all the incoming buses will go through scanners and checks. For now, when just a few flights take off to Russia a day, these meticulous measures will not cause any delays, but when the regular flow of Russians to Egypt resumes with dozens of flights arriving and departing daily, it might pose quite a challenge.
The resumption of flights has coincided with a significant rapprochement between Moscow and Cairo over the last few years. Egypt is buying more weapons from Russia than ever before; it is receiving state-of-the-art Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, stirring much discontent in Washington. Russia is also building Egypt’s first nuclear plant at El-Dabaa and provides the country with wheat.
“It seems that the issue of opening the resorts for Russian tourists has also become a subject of mutually beneficial bargaining between the parties,” Olga Mazur, a Russian expert on Egypt-Russia relations, told The Media Line.
“At the end of July 2021, negotiations between the First Deputy Minister of Industry and Trade of Russia Vasily Osmakov and the General Director of the Suez Canal Special Economic Zone Yahiya Zaki were held in Moscow. These talks resulted in the Protocol on Amendments to the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Russian Industrial Zone [RPZ] in the Economic Zone at the Suez Canal,” she continued.
“It was agreed that the RPZ will receive additional territory near the town of Ain Sokhna. This issue was progressing rather slowly over the past 18 months; however, its solution also coincided with Russia’s concessions in the field of tourist flights,” Mazur said.
The resumption of flights to the resorts came just in time, as Turkey – one of the most popular destinations for Russian tourists – had hinted it might close its doors to them because of the spread of the delta variant of COVID-19.
In April, Russia had banned flights to Turkey due to the “uncontrollable spread of COVID-19.” Many experts said at the time that the move was driven by other factors, given that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had publicly announced his support of Ukraine on the Crimea issue a few days earlier. Russia resumed the flights last month.
Does the reopening of Egypt have anything to do with political considerations, such as the September elections to the Duma Russian parliament and with the possible closure of Turkey as has been hinted at by some experts in Ukraine?
“Undoubtedly, both sides will benefit from the restoration of direct communication between Russia and the Egyptian resorts,” Mazur said. “Thus, according to Deputy Minister of Tourism Ghada Shalabi, the Egyptian authorities expect that 300,000 to 400,000 Russian tourists will visit Egypt each month, which could bring $3 billion in additional income in 2021.
“The Russians will have the opportunity to relax at their favorite resorts as soon as charter flights resume and the costs of travel packages will be less than similar packages to Cyprus or Turkey,” she said.
For now, it seems that Russia has “reopened” Egypt only partially, resuming flights from Moscow only, and it intends to keep a close eye on security arrangements in Egyptian airports.
The Egyptians hope the window that was opened this week by their Russian partners will eventually grow and open much wider to allow as many tourists as possible to enjoy the Red Sea and traditional Egyptian hospitality.