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 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.