The bombing of a coach carrying Korean visitors in the Sinai peninsula on Sunday Feb. 16 has dealt Egyptian tourism a hammer blow, just as it was attempting a fragile recovery from three years of political upheaval.
By killing two tourists near one of Egypt’s biggest sea-and-sun resorts, the Islamist militants behind the attack have undermined Egyptian official assurances that foreigners face no threat from the turmoil that has shaken the country since the overthrow of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
The Islamist group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis said it carried out the bombing and has told tourists to leave Egypt, threatening to attack any who are still in the country after Thursday.
Georges Colson, chairman of French travel agency federation SNAV, said his organization was advising people to choose alternative destinations.
“The winter season is dead, and indications for Easter are that people are not fighting to go to Egypt,” he said.
Such warnings strike fear into an industry that provides a livelihood for millions of Egyptians and brings in a large chunk of the country’s foreign currency.
Tour operators had been nursing hopes of better days after a dire 2013, when the ousting of President Mohamed Mursi and the killing of hundreds of his supporters tipped the sector back into crisis. Tourism revenue slumped 41 percent last year to USD$5.9 billion.
European travel companies halted holidays to popular Red Sea resorts such as Hurghada, Sharm el-Sheikh and Marsa Alam after the bloodshed that followed Mursi’s removal in July.
In September, embassies relaxed travel warnings and many Europeans pining for sunshine during the dark winter months returned to the beach resorts, which lie far from the violence in Cairo and Alexandria and offer direct flight connections.
To the hoteliers, restaurant owners and diving instructors on Egypt’s Red Sea coast, it seemed they could find a way to survive the almost permanent unrest in the cities.
Their optimism was founded partly on the presence of roadblocks and police patrols protecting the resorts, with their hotels, golf courses, clipped lawns and soft-sand beaches.
By contrast, tourist sites closer to Egypt’s towns and cities – the Pyramids of Giza, the Valley of the Kings – have seen only a trickle of visitors since 2011, to the dismay of Nile cruise operators and impoverished trinket sellers who rely on passing trade.
But it is the seaside resorts, offering an experience that differs little from beach holidays from Barbados to Bali, that are the backbone of Egyptian tourism.