The real danger in Egypt

Since the Arab Spring, European tour operators have been kept on tenterhooks by their governments about whether they would be allowed to continue sending tourists to Egypt. Some countries banned all travel, some to certain areas whilst bans were lifted and re-imposed without co-ordination between governments. Now, Egypt is slowly coming back on to the “all clear” list throughout Europe and yet, the most serious risk to the lives of foreign tourists is just as great as it has ever been.

Yesterday, at least 33 people were killed outside Sharm el Sheikh when a bus carrying tourists collided with another bus. There have been at least five deadly coach crashes in the tourist areas of Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada in the last few years. Egyptian roads are bad and the local standard of driving is worse. It would take any government a long time to improve Egypt’s shocking level of road fatalities – but the current Egyptian government could solve the specific problem of accidents in these two tourist areas quite easily.

Both Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada are newly-created towns. The roads are in relatively good condition and, since the towns only exist for tourism, there is much less traffic than in the crowded cities of Cairo and Alexandria. Most tourists arrive at the airport, get transferred the short distance to their hotels by taxi and then, if they leave the hotels at all, do so for short trips by taxi or, maybe, a slightly longer coach excursion. There are only a handful of roads used. It would be very easy to install almost blanket-policing of these routes and stop drivers speeding or over-taking on blind corners (the apparent cause of most accidents). Once a few coachdrivers had lost their licenses or operators been fined heavily, the message would get home.

Egypt’s tourist industry has had a lot to contend with, much of which has been outside its control, but the government can solve this problem quite easily. 

There must be no more coach crashes in Sharm el Sheikh or Hurghada.

The real danger in Egypt

It is good news for the people of Egypt that the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office is now allowing tourists to visit several more destinations in Egypt as well as Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada. The ban is still in place for Cairo which might seem a little strange since there would appear to be many capital cities in the world that pose greater risks to tourists.

To the best of our knowledge, the number of foreign tourists killed or injured during the period since the fall of Mubarak is zero.

That is not to say Egypt is an entirely safe place to visit though. Just take a look at the following:

- In 2011, eleven Hungarian tourists were killed and 27 injured when a bus travelling at high speed went out of control on a ringroad in Hurghada.

- In 2010, eight US tourists were killed in a bus accident in Aswan

- In 2012 five Germans were killed in bus accidents in Sharm el Sheikh and two Russians killed in Hurghada

And the list goes on. These are not cases of tourists driving badly, or of accidents on poor roads in the desert – most of them happened simply on coach transfers from the airport to the hotel in resorts which are newly-built and have fairly good roads.

The crash of a bus into a train at a level-crossing last weekend has again highlighted the serious problems with Egypt’s railways. The government needs to address this issue urgently. They also need to look carefully at the standard of driving. Taming the Cairo traffic would be a Herculean task but surely it is not beyond the skills of a competent government to ensure that foreigners arriving at Sharm el Sheikh or Hurghada airports can be transferred just a few miles to their hotels without undue risk.

Accidents to foreign tourists happen in any country – but there are rather too many happening in Egypt. Unfortunately, at the moment, most tourists run a far greater risk of being injured through the bad driving of their coach driver than they do in any political disturbance.

Cheap late holidays and the Egypt effect

The FCO continues to say that travel to the Red Sea resorts of Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada is safe so package holidays can continue – though most other holidays to Egypt will be cancelled because of the FCO’s ban against non-essential travel. The Red Sea resorts take by far of the majority of visitors so the extra numbers of people looking for a holiday at short notice will be quite limited.

However, new bookings to the Red Sea will, inevitably, reduce and this area is a major source of the supposed “late bargains” touted by the package tour companies. People looking for a late-booking will concentrate on other areas.

Then there is the possibility that the situation in Egypt will deteriorate and all travel will be banned by the FCO. This would immediately create a big problem for package tour companies as they would struggle to re-book people to Greece, Turkey and the Canaries.

In other words, if you are hoping to pick up a late bargain to one of these areas in the next few weeks, it might be wise to move quickly. Package tour companies have been caught with egg on their faces in the past and are now much more cautious about controlling their capacity so late deals are more limited – and, if the situation changed in Egypt, they could become very expensive overnight.

On the other hand, if the crisis in Egypt subsides quite quickly, then it is likely that the market will be flooded by special deals as the Egyptian trade seeks to regain any business temporarily lost.

And, whilst we accept the FCO’s comments that the Red Sea resorts are safe, it is just worth making a couple of points:

- The resorts are effectively fenced-in from the lawless lands outside. The Egyptian army has been fighting a losing battle in the last few years to control the terrorists and assorted bandits that control the area. With rather more to occupy them in the big cities, it is likely the army will be stretched making any effective control even more difficult.

- All the Red Sea resorts rely on supplies arriving by road from Cairo. Any disruption, or strike will be felt almost immediately. Maybe there are no corn flakes at breakfast which is not a disaster but a serious fuel shortage would be.


Trouble in the Maldives and Egypt

The news of a likely coup in the Maldives does not come as a surprise. Unfortunately, it will be a surprise to the many thousands of people with bookings to what is marketed as a “tropical paradise”. At the moment, it looks as if life on the islands will continue more or less as before and the international airport and connections from it are safe – but what does the future hold?

The FCO is great at giving advice when things happen but – quite understandably – it does not comment on what might happen. Tour operators and the travel press have little knowledge and no interest in discussing politics so, if a destination is deemed “safe” then they promote it as aggressively as they want – even if anyone with half a brain can see the trouble is brewing.

The Maldives is a classic case. A corrupt, authoritarian leader is replaced by a supposed liberal who is enthusiastically taken up by the western media because of his strong “green” agenda. Unfortunately, his rule does little to help the extreme poverty (not to mention terrifying heroin epidemic amongst the young) of the majority of the population. He also seems to have some rather peculiar ideas of his own (banning hotel spas without notice and threatening to make all hotels alcohol-free) and finally resorts to the old ways of his predecessor by trying to sack a judge he did not agree with. The Guardian has been strangely silent on all this. Now, he had gone and chaos will rule, at least for a while.

The Red Sea resorts of Egypt are another fine example. There was never any real danger during the actual revolution last year. Hotel workers were hardly going to rebel against their guests. The political situation since then has worsened, rather than improved (again, entirely predictable) but the Red Sea resorts have a more serious problem. They were built on land taken from the Bedouin who want it back. In the recent past, their protests have been quiet easily quashed but, with a very weak army and no political leadership, they have been taking the opportunity to strike. One deserted hotel outside the main tourist area has been taken over by Bedouin forces. Last week, they kidnapped a small tourist group on an excursion outside the security fences of Sharm el Sheikh. They held them for some hours and, apparently, treated them with great kindness and charm, though that is hardly the point. There have been raids in Sharm el Sheikh as well, including two armed raids on banks, in one of which a French tourist was caught in gun-fire and killed.

We have been saying for months that the Maldives was anything but the paradise they aremade out to be and tourists need to give careful thought before booking. Our feelings about Egypt have not changed either. For the last year we have said that most of Egypt is at risk of violence but the Red Sea resorts have a specific problem and, though more or less safe at the moment, security is an increasing issue.

None of this is very clever but it seems no one is prepared to give tourists the information they need to make an informed choice.

Does Russian Government read Inside Traveller?

A week before the latest troubles erupted in Cairo, the Russian government said they intended to ban charter flights to the Egyptian Red Sea resorts in view of the uncertain political climate. It could be that this is an overreaction but Russia does seem to be the only country that is awake to the fact that the situation in Egypt has actually worsened since the February Revolution rather than improved.

The current state of affairs was utterly predictable. We have been warning for some time that it would be foolish to plan a winter holiday in Egypt until, at the very least, elections were held and a new, reasonably stable government was in place. Tourists need not normally be too concerned about which party is in charge of a country but it is a fairly basic requirement that any country you visit should have a functioning police force. That has not been the case in Egypt since February and the whole country has just been held from anarchy by sticking tape and hope.

The UK FCO and tour operators have had their heads in the desert sands throughout the summer and autumn and appear to have ignored the looming problem. Bookings to Sharm el Sheikh were getting back to previous levels, helped by healthy discounts. Now, large numbers of tourists will be wondering if they were wise to book so long ahead for a holiday in February.

Our advice remains as it has been for the last several months. By all means consider visiting Egypt but keep a careful eye on the political situation and do not book more than a couple of weeks ahead. There will be plenty of rooms available so you are unlikely to lose out financially.

Clueless in Egypt

Late last week, the interim Egyptian government announced they would scrap the current visa on arrival system that applies to tourists from most western countries and require all visitors to obtain visas in advance of travel. They said they would operate a similar, computer-based system to that used by the US and Australia. No mention was made of what would happen to visitors to the tourist enclaves of Sharm el Sheikh and other resorts on the Red Sea who do not currently need a visa providing they do not leave the tourist area. Nor was there any indication of a likely date – though some seemed to think they intended it to start almost immediately.

Egypt desperately needs to get its tourist numbers back up. Tour operators, airlines and tourists themselves hate uncertainty and extra bureaucracy. This dim-witted announcement was a serious kick in the crotch to the industry and those who have tried to support it.

It takes a long time to set up a totally new visa system. If it is to be similar to the US arrangement, it will require substantial investment and testing before it can go live. If they want to issue visas in the old fashioned way, through foreign consulates, it will require a massive increase in staffing. Either way, unless they want to reduce tourist numbers to a trickle, it would require at least a year of hard work to get everything in place.

Now, the Egyptian Consulate in London has meekly announced that there are “no plans” to change the current system. Presumably the politicians have been told just how impractical and damaging such a change would be.

One hopes that whatever new government is elected in the autumn they will put the growth of tourism as a priority – not its destruction.