Sharm el-Sheikh tries to woo back tourists

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iol travel jan 16 Sharm el-Sheikh REUTERS Tourists pose with a performer during a traditional Sufi dance show, which is part of the Badium Sinai Arabic concert, in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Sharm el-Sheikh - The tourist resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, on Egypt's Red Sea coast, has a lot going for it.

Turquoise coastal waters shade into the deeper blue of the open sea.

Comfortable resort hotels are separated from sandy beaches only by a pedestrian walkway the length of the seafront.

Off the coast, divers can visit coral reefs and shoals of multicoloured fish.

At night, clubs feature DJs from Europe playing up-to-the minute music into the early hours.

In fact, the only thing that Sharm el-Sheikh is really short of at the moment is tourists.

iol travel jan 16 Sharm el-Sheikh2 A tourist takes a photo at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. REUTERS

In the evening, groups of mostly Russian visitors wander around the main pedestrian area, as bar and restaurant staff - and even, at one cafe, a pair of dancing dwarfs - try to gain their business.

But the sense of activity - it is the Russian Christmas holiday - belies the fact that business has been badly down ever since Egyptians revolted against former president Hosny Mubarak in January 2011.

“Two years ago, if you had been here on this path, you would not have found a place to stand because of the crowds,” says a waiter at one of the restaurants along the seaside path, quiet during what should be the evening rush.

“People are staying away because the media scares them,” the waiter - who asks not to be named - adds, “even though Sharm is very safe. It's completely nothing to do with Cairo.”

With tourism having contributed nine percent of Egypt's gross domestic product in 2010, the authorities are keenly aware of the need to revitalise the sector.

That is why tourism minister Hisham Zazou is to be seen in Sharm's cathedral on January 7 - Christmas Day for Russian Orthodox believers.

“It is important to share a day like this with our guests,” the minister tells dpa, after a photo opportunity with three somewhat bemused young Russian tourists.

“Last year, up to the end of November, 2.3 million Russian tourists arrived in Egypt,” he explains. “So this is a way of saying thank you and we look forward to seeing you again and celebrating Christmas and sharing this holiday with you again.”

Mikhail, a 24-year old forensic technician from Moscow, is the sort of person the minister is thinking of.

“Here you have swimming pools, the sea, ancient monuments, so of course I think it is a good place. Egypt is a very popular destination in Russia and the prices are good ... I will come again, and next time I will bring my girlfriend,” he says.

But what is good news for the Russian customer may not be so good for the Egyptian economy.

The few hotels that retain a high occupancy rate have done so by cutting their prices, tourism workers say, and other businesses are also feeling the pinch.

“We just want to eat, to live,” Ahmad, who sells perfumes in a shop just off the main pedestrian area, says.

“At this time of year there should have been a lot of tourists. Now the hotels are not even 40 percent full. How are people to get money for their families?”

Official statistics put the number of visitors to Egypt in the first 11 months of 2012 at 10.5 million.

That is an improvement over 2011, but compares poorly to the more than 14 million who visited Egypt in 2010.

The shaky recovery of tourism halted abruptly in November when a controversial decree by President Mohammed Morsi, expanding his powers at the expense of the judiciary, brought renewed clashes to the streets of Cairo.

In Egypt's second city, Alexandria, riots took place on December 14 and 21 in the run-up to a constitutional referendum.

“We have customers for one or two months, then there's another fight in Cairo and they disappear again,” Ahmad laments.

Zazou admits that dramatic television images do Egypt's tourism business no good, even though most of that business is concentrated in seaside resorts that have been untouched by political turmoil.

But despite the recent clashes, the minister says he is confident that the problems should soon be over.

“The violent acts are what disturb the economy at large, and tourism in particular, and I believe that Egyptians are adamant now to take a different route, for more stability,” he argues.

In his empty shop, Ahmad echoes the minister's view.

“People should stop fighting. Morsi is now president. Everyone can wait for three or four years so that people can work again and tourists come back.” - Sapa-dpa

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