TRAVEL
Tanks in a beach resort? You soon get used to it

By Ben Fisher

The beach retreats of the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt's once-thriving tourist getaway site, are trying to get back on their feet after the 2015 downing of a Russian jet soon after take-off from the southernmost town in the peninsula, Sharm el-Sheikh.

Soon after, Russia, which in better days provided the lion's share of the peninsula's tourists, along with Britain, halted all flights to the country and has not yet restarted them.

UK airlines, though still flying to other locations in Egypt, have not yet resumed flights to Sharm, either.

There has been chatter about Russia's resuming flights in the near future, after Egypt invested nearly $25 million in measures to secure its airports, but to date nothing has come of the rumours.

In November, Cairo devalued the Egyptian pound, which halved the value of the currency, nearly torpedoing an already weak economy.

President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi realises that another major terrorist attack against tourists will cause the economy, which derives around 10 per cent of its revenue from foreign visitors, to spiral into chaos.

So for now, before Britons and Russians go rushing back, the quiet and serenity of the beaches and the rock-bottom prices are reasons to make the trip.

For three nights at the five-star Sofitel Taba Heights with breakfast, lunch, dinner and unlimited alcoholic beverages included, the cost comes to less than 220 for two people.

And if you want to spurn the lap of luxury and get the true Israeli Sinai experience, hushas, the beachfront straw huts that Sabras love so much, are significantly cheaper.

The Israeli government recommends against travel to Sinai, as recently as January issuing a critical travel warning instructing all its citizens to come home immediately, due to intelligence that there would be an attack on the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution.

The irony is that the warning served mainly to terrify the families of those visiting.

Those lounging on the beaches of Nuweiba and Dahab were too far away from WiFi for the advisory to be of any practical use.

In the end, the anniversary of the revolution passed without incident.

The last Israeli to die in the Sinai was killed in a tragic accident.

An 18-year-old boy was electrocuted last October during a rainstorm while trying to fix the wiring in a husha.

It has been more than a decade since any Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks in the Sinai.

And as more and more quiet days pass in the peninsula where dramatic desert cliffs lead down to sandy beaches and pristine coral reefs, more Israelis are going back, and telling their friends they're going for a weekend in Egypt will result in fewer raised eyebrows.

But for many, Sinai is still a black hole of sorts. There is uncertainty exactly how many people live in the peninsula, which parts are restive and which are restful, and just how secure tourists should feel.

The population in the peninsula is 1.4 million, which includes cities in the western Sinai such as Port Said and Ismailia - so far west, they're nearly in mainland Egypt.

Just 600,000 live in the North and South Sinai Governorates. The majority of those are Bedouin, many of whom worked in the tourism industry when the industry was providing more people with a livelihood than it is today.

In the northern part of the peninsula, in the coastal regions bordering the Gaza Strip and the Mediterranean Sea, the Egyptian government is battling an Islamist insurgency, and ISIS has an active branch - Wilayat Sinai.

But what tourists fail to grasp, nearly a half dozen people explained, is that about 300 kilometres, a mountain range and dozens of army checkpoints separate the North Sinai Governorate from the beaches in the South.

"Daesh is on the Mediterranean Sea," said one taxi driver, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS, "and the tourists are on the Red Sea."

But there are still valid security concerns in South Sinai.

In addition to the crashed Russian jet, which ISIS claimed it took down with a bomb hidden in a can of soda, in 2014 a suicide bomber boarded a South Korean tour bus, killing three Koreans and their Egyptian driver. So for those concerned about security, here's a breakdown of the procedures in effect for tourists.

When you cross the border and get into a taxi, the driver will hand you a form on which to write your name, nationality and passport number, which is then passed on to the Tourism Police.

From the border to the Sofitel Taba Heights, for instance, a 30-minute drive south, you will pass no fewer than four checkpoints, where your passport will be inspected and your taxi driver grilled about who he has in the back and where he's taking them.

Every few kilometres in and outside of Taba sit soldiers behind machine-gun turrets in tanks, and police wielding weapons behind stationary bullet-proof shields.

And while it's somewhat disconcerting to see men in tanks, like teenagers with guns in the streets of Israel, it's something you quickly get used to if you spend enough time in Egypt.

Before being allowed to enter the hotel, your taxi will go through three security checks for bombs.

First, with some sort of electric minesweeper, which a security guard runs along the exterior of the vehicle, then a mirror to check the undercarriage, and then a bomb-sniffing dog.

Upon entrance to the hotel, which features a private beach, seven pools, three restaurants and a spa and fitness area, you realise that it's not just Israelis who are subjected to expensive beach resorts.

Nearly half of the Sofitel's guests last week were from Jordan because the Sinai is a fraction of the price of a holiday in Aqaba.

And while a sprinkling of Poles and Ukrainians strutted around the hotel grounds in their Speedos, tourists from Western Europe and North America seemed to be something of a rarity.

"You're American?" one employee of the hotel asked me. "You must have come from the heavens!" he exclaimed, beaming and raising his hands toward the sky.


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