CAIRO – Bomb blasts at two holiday resorts in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula have sent shivers through the tourism industry, but tour operators expect the country’s biggest foreign currency earner to suffer only minor damage.
"The attack was very contained and seemed to be focused in terms of its objective," Ramy el-Shawan, managing director of the firm Peace Tourism told IPS. "Maybe it will slow tourism in Sinai, especially in the short term, but I don’t think it will have a long-term effect on tourism as a whole."
Several previously unknown Islamist groups, including one purportedly connected to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, claimed separately to have carried out the coordinated attacks. Israeli security officials suspect al-Qaeda involvement, but Egyptian officials say it is too early to speculate.
Few can dispute that Israeli tourists were the intended targets of a truck bomb that ripped through the Taba Hilton hotel just meters from Egypt’s border with the Jewish state, and of two smaller explosions at Ras al-Shitan tourist village 50 km south. Both resorts were packed with Israelis vacationing during the Jewish holy festival Sukkot.
"Look at the timing. Look at the choice of place," tourism minister Ahmed el-Maghraby said.
The explosions killed at least 30 people, mostly Israelis, and wounded more than 120. It was the first terrorist attack on tourists in Egypt in seven years.
In November 1997, Muslim extremists killed 58 foreign tourists at a temple near the southern city Luxor. Egypt’s tourism industry collapsed following the massacre, playing into the hands of the perpetrators who had sought to topple the regime and install a purist Islamic state.
"This was completely different from what happened in Luxor," said Saleh el-Naiyal, vice-president of the Egyptian Travel Agents Association (ETAA). "That was an attack on all tourism, this was clearly a political attack against Israelis and followed a warning of an attack."
The Israeli government had urged its citizens Sept. 9 not to visit Egypt, citing "reliable and precise" intelligence that pointed to an attack on tourists in Sinai. Many Israelis dismissed the warning in the belief that a holiday in Egypt was safer than staying home.
Up to 15,000 Israelis were vacationing in Sinai when the three bombs went off. Thousands of Israeli tourists streamed back across the border into Israel following the attacks, leaving many resorts in Sinai empty.
"We were fully booked before the attack," said Samer Ali, owner of Nakhil Inn, a beach guesthouse popular with Israeli backpackers. "Now we have only two occupied rooms, and that’s because we have some Belgians staying here."
Ali said his guesthouse, like many in Sinai, depends on Israeli tourism for nearly 90 percent of its clients. "For many Israelis, this was kind of like Sept. 11 on a small scale," said Ali.
He said the terrorist attack would scare off Israeli tourists for a few years, but was unlikely to make a big dent in Egypt’s tourism industry, which generated $3.8 billion in 2002-2003. Israeli visitors accounted for less than one percent of Egypt’s 5.2 million tourist arrivals.
Resort hotels catering primarily to European package tourists played down the bombings, claiming business as usual. "A few Israelis left, but the majority of our guests are European and all are accounted for," said Hamza Selim, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Taba Heights, a resort near the site of the deadliest blast. "We’ve had no cancellations so far."
Local travel agents also reported only minor activity, unlike the rush of cancellations that followed the Sept. 11 bombings in the United States.
"I anticipate some cancellations, and there is some worry, but I don’t think it will have a big effect," said el-Naiyal of ETAA.
He said tourism is more robust in the post 9/11 era, citing as an example the al-Qaeda-linked attack on trains in Madrid last March. "Spanish tourism survived the problem and so can we," he said.
Yet not everybody is so optimistic. Some fear the psychological effect of a terrorist attack in Egypt could cast doubts over the jobs of some two million Egyptians working in the tourism sector.
"This could be a huge blow to the local economy because now people will think Egypt cannot protect tourists from terrorist attacks," said tourist guide Nabil el-Shabrawy. "This was an attack on Israelis, but in the end all Egyptians could suffer."
(Inter Press Service)