Egypt’s two most popular Red Sea tourist destinations on Monday received the first flights carrying tourists from Russia in six years, after the bombing of a Russian aircraft over the Sinai peninsula in 2015 that killed all 224 people on board.
With a hefty degree of pomp, Russian tourists were greeted at Hurghada and Sharm El Sheikh airports with balloons, chocolates, banners and folkloric musical performances.
Prominent Egyptian officials were in attendance to mark the resumption of Russian flights to the Red Sea resorts.
Before the crash, regarded as a terrorist attack after the Egyptian arm of ISIS claimed responsibility, Russians constituted the largest segment of foreign tourists visiting Egypt.
“Five million Russians visited the Red Sea each year before the plane incident. That’s not a small number. I am personally ecstatic that they are back. The country’s tourism sector has certainly felt their absence,” said Mohamed Youssef, head of iTraffix, one of Sharm El Sheikh’s busiest tour operators.
EgyptAir said on Monday that because Russian officials approved revamped security measures, the national airline would be operating seven flights per week from Moscow to Hurghada and Sharm El Sheikh.
Russia announced that eight airlines will be operating flights to the Egyptian resorts from 43 Russian cities. St. Petersburg, where the crashed plane was heading in 2015, is not included.
Egypt has spent millions on more advanced security measures, overseen periodically by Russian security officials. After the bombing, access to the two airports was restricted and the vetting process for employees made more thorough, authorities said.
Russian experts paid inspection visits to the two airports before giving approval for the resumption of flights between the countries.
While flights resumed to Cairo in 2018, they remained suspended in the Red Sea area at great cost to the tourism sector.
The tenacity with which Egypt pursued a resumption of the flights to Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada reflects the importance of Russians to the country’s tourism sector, battered by years of turmoil after a popular uprising in 2011, security concerns and the coronavirus pandemic.
The devastation wrought by the pandemic on the tourism sector, which normally accounts for more than 10 per cent of GDP, was most obvious in Cairo and the Red Sea beach resorts.
Hotels were shuttered for months and opened about a year ago after adopting costly preventive measures and allowed to operate at only 50 per cent capacity. This was increased to 70 per cent in July in anticipation of an increase in beach tourism in the Red Sea region.
Souvenir shops closed down or stayed empty, taxis stood idly and restaurants were eerily quiet. Many establishments in Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada remain closed as many workers in the tourism sector sought alternative employment.
“After the pandemic, which only made the absence of Russian tourists more of a problem for tourism, some of my employees resigned and decided to change careers. Many of them speak multiple languages due to their proximity to tourists in the Red Sea, so finding employment was easy for them,” says Walid Otify, marketing director of Sun International, the largest Russian tour operator in Sharm El Sheikh.
The tourism industry employs one million workers in Egypt. For a number of Red Sea tour operators, things are looking up and they hope to rehire their laid off employees with the return of Russian tourism.
“I am very optimistic that we will be rehiring many of the people who left us during the pandemic,” Mr Youssef said.
Despite the six-year flight ban, Russians had not completely disappeared from the Red Sea, as some chose to take flights from neighbouring countries to Egypt. But even with this loophole, numbers remained low.
“Sure, Russians were entering through Ukraine and Belarus but that’s a longer and more expensive journey than many of them wanted to take. So even with the indirect flights, we had only a small fraction of the original number of visitors,” Mr Youssef said.
Russian tourists in Sharm El Sheikh are also celebrating the resumption of flights between the two countries.
“I have been in Sharm El Sheikh for a week now, I came with some relatives who live in Ukraine but my husband and kids stayed behind in Moscow,” Daria Danilova told The National. Ms Danilova's family is set to arrive in Sharm El Sheikh on Friday after the lifting of the flight ban.
Russians favour the Red Sea as a tourist destination because of its affordability and the stark difference in climate from their homeland, tourist Sofia Morozov said.
“We just love the Red Sea. Everyone I know comes here on holiday. In some parts of Russia coming here in the summer has become a tradition,” she said.
Tourists have begun to slowly trickle back to Egypt but numbers are well below the 13 million who visited in 2019, bringing in $13.03 billion for the economy.
A Health Ministry campaign focusing on vaccinating tourism sector workers has kept infection rates low in the Red Sea, compared to the rest of the country, where vaccinations are increasing albeit much more slowly.
In a multi-faceted effort to drum up more business, Egypt’s Tourism Ministry is offering all Russian tourists who arrive in Egypt this week free day trips to some of the Red Sea’s most popular destinations.
Additionally, the ministry is providing free trips to Cairo for returning tourists, including visits to the newly inaugurated National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation and the Giza pyramids.
“It’s quite clever as a promotional strategy because the best advertising happens through word of mouth, so if these tourists have a good time, they go home, tell their friends and hopefully we can get things going again,” Mr Otify said.