Russian tourist return is causing a Red Sea destination boom, hospitality workers say

Inbound Russian tourism, once a main market for Egypt’s Red Sea resorts, is reaching new heights as the six-year ban on Russian flights to the peninsula comes to an end.

Russian carriers had stopped flying to the Red Sea airports six years ago, after an Islamic State affiliate bombed a Russian airliner minutes after it took off at Sinai’s Sharm El Sheikh Airport. Egypt’s airport security procedures have since been under major scrutiny by Moscow authorities. In August, Egyptian envoy to Russia, Ihab Nasr, said in an interview with a local TV station that there would be 20 direct flights between Moscow and the Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada resort towns, although Russian officials say that the number of prospective direct flights will be contingent on coronavirus numbers. Russian charter flights are slated to return in the fall.

The flow of Russian visitors returning to Egypt’s coastal cities is met with business optimism from tourism workers in both Hurghada and Sharm El Sheikh, welcoming the country’s formerly most prominent tourist market. On August 9, when the first Russian tourists landed in Sharm El Sheikh after the long hiatus, they were greeted with flowers, sweets, and balloons. This warm cordiality seems reflective of the broader business sentiment in the resort towns’ tourism industries.

With direct Russian flights to Egypt’s regional peer Turkey banned in April due to high coronavirus numbers and the spread of the Delta variant, the return of Russian travellers to Egypt comes as a positive move that is likely to draw in 300,000 to 400,000 Russian tourists each month in 2021, bringing in $3 billion, according to expectations mentioned by Deputy Minister of Tourism Ghada Shalabi.

“There’s a slow yet massive boom in Russian tourism to Sharm Al Sheikh, which attracts more short-term tourists, coming in for one-week packages and the like, rather than the more nomadic travellers who often might escape the entire winter here,” said Naguib Mukrim, who runs a car rental business operating throughout the South Sinai governorate. “I’m not yet seeing a lot of clientele in [neighbouring] Dahab and Nuweiba, the boom there is more from European tourists who have been here a while escaping coronavirus restrictions in their own countries, as well as Egyptians. But in Sharm, there’s a lot of Russians already, on some days it’s almost like there are only Russians coming out of the airport.”

On September 12, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El-Anany visited Moscow to discuss bilateral cooperation in the tourism sector, meeting with officials from the Russian Tourism Federation to discuss collaboration towards raising Russian tourist flows to Egypt. In a meeting with the federation, as well as the head of Russia’s Federal Service for Consumer Protection and Welfare, Anna Popova, he stressed that Egypt is taking appropriate security and health measures amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Head of Russia’s Federal Agency for Tourism Zarina Doguzova lauded Egypt’s improved airport security and counterterrorism efforts, asserting the importance of bilateral ties and Russian tourists’ preference for Egypt as a travel destination.

Khaled Abdulgeleil, head of the Red Sea governorate’s commercial board, expects a major rebound in Russian tourism to the coastal city, noting that around 250,000 Russian tourists have visited Egypt since the return of direct flights to the country’s resort destinations last month. In an interview with Ahram Gate, he said that the tail end of the summer season has witnessed hotel occupancy rates of 100 percent at some venues, and that the return of a major tourist market is slated to boost job opportunities and revenues for the sector’s workers. In 2014, Russian tourism flows amounted to 3.1 million visitors, most of whom visit Red Sea resort towns, amounting to almost an entire third of Egypt’s annual tourist numbers.

A recent Colliers International report shows a rise in Egypt’s Q2 of 2021 hotel occupancy rates, rising by 38 percent year-on-year in Sharm el-Sheikh, 6 percent in Cairo and 9 percent in Alexandria. While the rise in Cairo and Alexandria occupancies could be seen on a broader 2021 recovery, Sharm el-Sheikh’s boost is likely attributed at least in part to the return of one of the country’s major tourist markets. International tourist flows to Marsa Alam, a Red Sea resort town dubbed “Egypt’s Maldives”, are also on the rise. In adapting to the sector’s rebound, the Ministry of Tourism is also launching a Russian and Ukrainian-language hotline answering to tourist queries in their language.

“It’s really encouraging to see such vast tourist arrivals accelerating here while the numbers struggle in other countries during the current period of global upheaval,” said Mina Abed, who runs a small accommodation business in Sharm el-Sheikh. “We’ve thankfully maintained high enough occupancy rates [here in Sharm] through the pandemic to survive, while small businesses elsewhere [in other countries] in the Mediterranean and the Red Sea region have struggled to stay afloat. We’re lucky that Egypt’s economy has thrived despite the coronavirus pandemic, and I’m really happy to see the ripple effect of that with the return of Russian tourists too.” Abed adds that his bookings have primarily been from Russian travellers in the past few weeks.

“In the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic, Sinai was mostly seeing tourist flows from Egyptian white-collar workers working remotely, that really helped us survive for several months. Later, we also saw more tourists coming in from neighbouring countries and from Europe, mostly to escape the lockdowns in their own countries while Egypt remained open, offering sun, sea, and serenity,” explains Abed. Although he doesn’t speak Russian, Abed describes encountering Russian-sounding tourists more frequently in Sharm’s bazaars and restaurants in recent weeks.

“With more families and short-term tourists booking in recent months, I’m confident that we are returning to pre-COVID tourism patterns and the sector’s more stable contribution to the economy.”

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