SHARM EL SHEIKH – A suicide bombing that killed three South Korean tourists in south Sinai has sent shockwaves through the resorts dotting its pristine coastline, with Egypt’s vital tourism industry in the crosshairs of militants.
The bombing of the tour bus on Sunday was claimed by an Al-Qaeda-inspired group that had previously focused its attacks on security forces since the military’s ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July.
The group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, said in a statement that the bus attack was “part of our economic war against this regime of traitors.”
Scores of policemen and soldiers have been killed in attacks claimed by Sinai-based militants.
But Sunday’s bombing threatens to hit the military-installed government’s efforts to revive the key tourism industry, which accounts for over 11 percent of Egypt’s GDP.
The jihadi group “is a threat to tourism and aims to hinder the roadmap,” Egyptian newspapers quoted prime minister Hazem al-Beblawi as saying.
Bus driver Fekri Habib said his company has already cancelled two tourist trips to Saint Catherine’s desert monastery, one of the south Sinai destinations that South Koreans had visited before their bus was attacked near a border crossing with Israel.
The peninsula’s southern coastline, popular among Western tourists for its animated resort towns, had been spared from the violence rocking the country since a popular uprising toppled strongman Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
In the past three years, “south Sinai was doing well in comparison with other areas, Cairo or Luxor for instance,” tourism ministry spokeswoman Rasha al-Azayzi told AFP.
Azayzi said 75 percent of tourists to Egypt visited the Red Sea and south Sinai shores, including the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh.
With its sunny beaches and coral reefs, south Sinai was considered a safe haven isolated from Egypt’s turmoil.
“I asked my husband how far it (Sharm el-Sheikh) was from Cairo as I was cautious not to get close to the centre,” said Suzanne Peamon, a 55-year old English tourist visiting Sharm el-Sheikh.
“I did think twice about visiting Egypt, but since Sharm el-Sheikh is far enough from Cairo I said okay”, she added.
But standing in the gardens of Sharm el-Sheikh International hospital with the brother of the Egyptian bus driver who was also killed in the Taba blast, fellow driver Habib, 51, said he expects the attack to have a huge impact on tourism.
“Most compagnies cancelled their trips” on Monday, a day after the attack, Habib said.
‘Bye bye to tourism’
On the road linking the capital to the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, cars are stopped at several security checkpoints, where policemen check for identification and ask for their destination.
Mohamed Hamdi, the owner of a souvenir shop in Sharm el-Sheikh, said it was to early to evaluate the impact.
“It will be clearer next week or in 10 days or so, when people who were expected to come cancel their trip or not,” he said.
He acknowledged, however, that a repeat of such an attack could deal a fatal blow to an already ailing tourism industry, a vital source of income for Egypt.
“If this happens in Sharm or Hurghada, you can say bye bye to tourism,” Hamdi said.
Having dinner with her husband in a seafood restaurant, 55-year old Italian tourist Rosalina Grumo said her friends cancelled a trip after learning of the Taba attack, but that she was already in Egypt at the time.
The government’s census agency said the number of tourists plunged in December 2013 by almost 31 percent compared with the same month of 2012.
Tourists are still sunbathing on the beaches of Sharm el-Sheikh in the morning and strolling the commercial downtown in the evening, but the town looks deserted in comparison to past years.
Tareq Hamad, owner of a beachwear boutique in a fancy mall, said he did not know if he will even be able to pay the rent at the end of the month.
“I really hope it will get better … We can’t take any more,” he said, pointing to a steady deterioration over the past six months ever since Morsi’s ouster.