Why Sinai's 'golden city' is losing its luster

Dahab, a town on the Red Sea where a variety of cultures mix with the traditions of the indigenous Bedouin, has been hit by a tourism collapse as a result of Egypt’s political situation and the crash of a Russian plane in 2015.

al-monitor Divers look at coral reefs in the Red Sea resort city of Dahab, Sinai Peninsula, Oct. 3, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih.

Topics covered

terrorism, sinai peninsula, sinai attacks, sharm el-sheikh, religious extremism, egyptian economy, egypt tourism, bedouin

Jul 3, 2016

DAHAB, Egypt — The city of Dahab, which means “gold” in Arabic, looks like a golden coin hung between the mountain and the sea. However, this city’s charm was not enough to save it from the major economic crisis hitting it after tourists no longer filled its streets as a result of the political situation and the media propaganda regarding extremist and terrorist groups in the Sinai Peninsula.

There are few luxury hotels or fast-food restaurants, but visitors will find Indian, Korean and Italian restaurants, which mirrors the diversity of the culture of its inhabitants who came to stay from all four corners of the world.

The Bedouin are the indigenous population, and their huts made of mud and wood are scattered along the shoreline and within neighborhoods. They often rent their huts to tourists at very low prices (not exceeding $10 per day). They also built cafes out of palm leaves and wood, and floor mattresses serve as seats in the cafes.

Dahab includes the Blue Hole, one of the most popular diving destinations in the world, hosting international diving competitions. The Blue Hole is a submarine sinkhole, around 94 meters (308 feet) deep. This destination is a hotspot for free-diving events, without the use of scuba gear.

Moreover, one of the most famous activities in the city is mountain climbing, and numerous cycling races are organized on the city’s mountain roads.

Yet those activities seem like a thing of the past in light of the economic and touristic deterioration in the city. Its sites are no longer filled with tourists who once visited the city in search of adventure or spiritual therapy. Today, only Bedouin and foreigners who hold residencies are in the city.

Khaled Faraj, a Bedouin who lives in Mount Catherine, told Al-Monitor that he prefers living in nature rather than working in the field of tourism. “Dahab was previously called Bilad al-Yatim [Land of the Orphan]. People would come to this city from all over the world and never leave.”

Faraj pointed out that Dahab is surrounded by beautiful cities such as Nuweiba and Sharm el-Sheikh. “People choose energy over beauty; Dahab gives out a great positive energy. Hundreds came here for spiritual treatment and yoga, but their numbers are decreasing day after day,” he said.

On Laguna Beach, encircled by magnificent mountains, the sea seems to have a hundred shades of turquoise. The color of the seawater varies according to the proximity of the coral reefs to the water surface.

However, behind this captivating scenery lies a painful reality. The city is plagued by economic recession and scarcity of tourism.

In March, the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism issued statistics revealing that in February the number of tourists visiting Dahab decreased by 46%, compared to the same month of 2015, and the number of tourists in Egypt decreased from 14.7 million tourists in 2010 to 6.06 million tourists in 2015.

A 23-year-old taxi driver spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, saying, “Youth here have no dreams. Tourism and investments are almost nonexistent and the only job left for young men is working as taxi drivers. The widespread and exaggerated media discourse about terrorism scared tourists and tarnished the image of Sinai.”

There are no manifestations of religious extremism in Dahab. Religiosity is limited to the usual rituals. Veiled local women can be seen sitting on the same beach along with women wearing revealing swimwear.

Salem Audi, who works at a diving center, told Al-Monitor, “Ever since our childhood, we have grown accustomed to foreign tourists and we respect the different cultures. We grew up with tourists. We have no complaints about them, but on the contrary, without tourism, the city’s economic situation would deteriorate.”

Most Bedouin in the city — children and adults — speak English. Most of them start swimming at an early age and practice diving. Local Bedouin sell embroideries and handicrafts at the popular market. But this market has now become completely empty, which is a first for Dahab.

Saleh Audi, a diver for 12 years, said, “In the past, when tourism plunged, I would spend two weeks without diving. It has been months since my last client. I miss my job because I love it. Besides, I am facing tough times in spending on my family of seven.”

He added, “Ever since the Russian plane was downed in 2015, tourism became nonexistent; all cheap direct flights to Sharm el-Sheikh — given as offers by small airlines and packed with foreign tourists and specifically Russian tourists — were completely halted.”

The Russian airplane, carrying 224 people, crashed after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh airport on Oct. 31, 2015.

Al-Jawhara Hotel owner Mohammad Suleiman explained that Dahab does not depend on agriculture or fishing, but rather on sport events such as diving and climbing, as well as on therapeutic tourism such as yoga and treatment. He told Al-Monitor, “Today, the city is empty, except for some foreign residents and Egyptian tourists who benefit from great discounts given low public income in Egypt in general.”

He added, “When the revolution sparked in 2011, Dahab’s vibrant streets were crowded with tourists, but afterward tourism gradually plunged. When the Russian plane crashed, the city streets became empty.” All the while, the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism estimates the proportion of Russian tourists to constitute 31% of the total tourists who annually visit Egypt.

He said that before the revolution his 50-room hotel was fully occupied, but now only two rooms are occupied and the income is not enough to pay taxes, electricity bills and staff salaries.

In November 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced halting all flights to Egypt and ordered the return of all Russian tourists. The United Kingdom halted direct flights to and from Sharm el-Sheikh airport.

Along Mashraba Street, where three simultaneous terrorist bombings killed about 18 people in 2006, the restaurants overlooking the sea are almost empty, but not as a result of the 2006 bombings, as those wounds healed quickly and the city was soon filled with tourists again. They are now empty because direct and cheap flights to Sharm el-Sheik airport, which lies about an hour’s drive from Dahab, have been canceled.

Selim Diab, the owner of the Dolphin restaurant, said that thousands of workers who came from Cairo or Upper Egypt have left the city because there were no tourists, and that three workers left his restaurant, which is now barely operating.

He also said that his friends and foreign acquaintances have been in contact with him, telling him that they wish to visit but all flights from Europe to Sharm el-Sheikh, which take up to four hours, have been suspended. The only remaining trip to Sharm el-Sheikh is a flight that takes more than 24 hours because of a layover in Istanbul and it is double the usual price, which was less than 100 euros ($111).

Karine, a Spanish mother of two daughters, decided with her husband to raise their children in Dahab because of the city’s calm nature and climate. “Everything has changed here following the plane crash. No one is visiting anymore and the economic situation is worsening. The people of the city have raised great concerns. Tickets were bought for 80 euros [$89] sometimes, and now a ticket costs up to 250 euros [$278],” she said.

Everyone is hoping that the Egyptian government will support tourism again, urging states to resume their flights to Sharm el-Sheikh. The Laguna Beach resort, which used to be filled with people at sunrise, is now empty except for a few young Egyptians who are rediscovering the attractions of their own country.

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