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.
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.
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.