The Jewish Passover holiday recalls the Israelite Exodus from ancient Egypt through the desert to the Promised Land.
However, following disruptive years of terror threats and the recent coronavirus pandemic, Israeli tourists are expected to return in large numbers to the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula for the upcoming Passover vacation to the same area from which Moses led the Hebrew nation from slavery to freedom.
Can the return of modern Israeli tourism liberate the ailing Egyptian tourism industry from financial ruin?
Despite years of terrorist threats, many Israeli tourists visited the holiday resorts in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula anyway. As late as October 2019, some 150,000 Israelis vacationed in Sinai during the Jewish holidays.
Then the pandemic came, causing the closure of national borders and bringing much of the global tourism industry to its knees. This was a particularly heavy blow for the fragile Egyptian economy, which is dependent on Israeli and international tourism.
In March, Egypt and Israel agreed to launch direct flights between Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport and Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt during Passover. This is perceived as a win-win situation for both Israel and Egypt. Many Israelis are eager to start traveling again overseas after living for two years with the pandemic restrictions and several lockdowns. Egypt is also equally eager to welcome the Israeli tourists and a badly needed infusion of cash into the ailing Egyptian tourism industry.
Faraq Ode, manager of the Egyptian New Moon Island beach camp resort, recalls the most difficult period during the pandemic.
“We totally closed the place for three or four months, with only the security people and the people watering the plants here,” said Ode. “All the workers went back to their houses, and we paid them half salary and gave them rice for their families.”
While traveling has become more expensive in the post-COVID era, prices in Egypt are still significantly lower than in Israel.
“Sinai is still cheaper than any vacation in Israel,” said Daniel Blum, an Israeli speech therapist who decided to celebrate his 28th birthday in the Egyptian resort Ras Shaitan in November.
Barak Gur, who recently celebrated his 50th birthday in Egypt, considers Sinai as his second home after Israel. Gur believes that the potential for Israeli tourism in Egypt is great but simultaneously challenged by geopolitical instability.
“They thought this would be the Riviera in the 1990s. They talked about peace. There was a lot of hope that didn’t get realized. But when you see it with the perspective of years, that’s the reality here. The reality is that there are waves, maybe it’s geopolitical or whatever, something always happens and everyone runs back to curl up in their conch shells,” Barak said.
While the world is gradually reopening after the pandemic, Egypt hopes that the return of Israeli tourists will make up for some of the losses incurred by the loss of Russian and Ukrainian tourists. They typically constitute an important segment for the Egyptian tourism industry. In 2021, close to 1.5 million Ukrainian tourists visited Egypt, according to the Ukrainian State Agency for Tourism.
Prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, Egypt was the most preferred destination for Ukrainians after Turkey. Egypt was also a favored destination by millions of Russians. For instance, almost three million Russian tourists visited Egypt in 2014. However, there has recently been a dramatic decrease in the number of Russian and Ukrainian tourists in Egypt due to the war in Ukraine and international sanctions against Russia.
Tourism accounts for approximately 12% of the Egyptian annual Gross National Product and is a crucial source of foreign currency for the Egyptian economy. Around 2 million Egyptians are employed in the tourism sector and their livelihood depends on international tourism.
Magdy Sleem, a former Egyptian Tourism Ministry official, welcomed the news of direct flights between Israel and Egypt. However, Sleem told Al Monitor that the Israeli market was too small to compensate for the full financial losses caused by the war in Ukraine.
“We will seemingly see the lowest number of tourists visiting Egypt in years,” warned Sleem.