In Depth

Is it safe to travel to Egypt?

UK lifts its four-year ban on direct flights to Sharm el Sheikh

The UK Government has lifted a ban on direct flights to the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh, four years after the route was shut down for security reasons.

In October 2015, an Airbus A321 operated by the Russian airline Kogalymavia was brought down by a bomb shortly after taking off from Sharm el Sheikh airport, killing all 224 people on board and sparking major concerns over the effectiveness of Egypt’s security apparatus.

The UK’s Department for Transport implemented a ban in the wake of the bombing, taking effect early in November 2015 at the “start of a winter season that was expected to see 500,000 British holidaymakers in the string of resorts on the southeast flank of the Sinai peninsula”, The Independent reports. Statistics show that since the ban, Egypt has lost an estimated two million visits from UK tourists.

The department said improvements in security procedures at the airport and close co-operation between the UK and Egypt meant commercial airlines “could again operate routes to and from the popular holiday destination”, Sky News reports. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said lifting the restriction was “the first step” in resuming direct flights.

“The safety and security of British nationals remains our top priority and this decision follows close co-operation between our aviation security experts and their Egyptian counterparts, and improvements in security procedures at the airport,” he added.

Travel trade organisation Abta said the decision to lift flight restrictions was “welcome news” for the industry, while Tui confirmed it will resume selling holidays to the resort and EasyJet said it will “look at any opportunities” in relation to the news.

Air travel restrictions implemented by the UK Government in recent years have been a source of tension between London and Cairo, the latter believing the bans have badly damaged their already struggling tourism industry.

Egypt’s tourism sector is at a critical juncture as resorts try to win back visitors driven away by fears of civil unrest, religious intolerance and terrorism.

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Back in 2010, the industry was thriving, with around 14.7 million foreign tourists visiting Egypt. But the turmoil that followed the Arab Spring and the ousting of dictator Hosni Mubarak saw this number plummet to just 5.4 million in 2016.

The situation began to improve in 2017, as tourists turned to Egypt as a cheaper alternative to package-holiday destinations such as Spain, Italy and Greece. But just as things were looking up, the reputations of major Egyptian resorts were hit by reports of foreigners dying as a result of food poisoning, shark attacks and even murder in the summer of 2018.

Earlier this year, human rights group Amnesty International released a report that said Egypt was “more dangerous than ever”, following a brutal police crackdown on terrorism and dissent.

With the threat of terrorism and the unpredictability of an authoritarian regime, is a trip to one of Egypt’s seaside resorts safe?

Terrorism

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) says that terrorists “are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Egypt”, and that visitors “should be vigilant at all times and follow the advice of the Egyptian authorities”.

The troubled nation has suffered several terrorist atrocities in the past five years, including attacks against government and security forces, and on public transport, tourist venues and civil aviation.

In the most recent violence, seven Egyptian police officers were killed by Islamic State fighters in North Sinai in June. Four militants, including a suicide bomber, also died in clashes after the attack.

However, recent trends suggest that the severity of the threat from terrorist groups in Egypt fluctuates dramatically from region to region.

“North Sinai has long been a stronghold of armed groups and Egyptian authorities launched an offensive against them last year,” reports Al Jazeera.

The FCO advises against all but essential travel to the Sahara desert, to the west of the Nile, citing a lack of security, and both the UK authorities and the US Department of State (DOS) strongly advise against all travel to the northern half of the Sinai Peninsula, to the east of Cairo.

There is no FCO advice against travel to Cairo, Alexandria, the tourist areas along the Nile, and the Red Sea resorts of Sharm el Sheikh and Hurghada.

The section of the country between the Nile and the Red Sea is also considered mostly safe. However, visitors travelling on roads in this region should expect to be stopped frequently at military checkpoints, where they may be questioned by officers.

This is because of the presence of Islamic State affiliate Daesh-Sinai, a terrorist group that has repeatedly targeted civilians in the region. 

Security

The DOS reports that petty crime levels in Cairo and Alexandria are “moderate”, with a low risk in the rest of the country where travel is deemed safe. The US department notes that one of the most common problems faced by tourists comes from aggressive vendors at shops in urban areas, who will offer “free” gifts but then go on to demand money.

Meanwhile, the FCO warns that in recent years, British expatriates have “sometimes suffered armed robberies, muggings (including in taxis), sexual assaults, rapes, break-ins to accommodation and cars”. In 2017, the British Embassy in Cairo received eight reports of rape and sexual assault against UK nationals in the country.

“If you are travelling on a microbus, avoid being the last passenger left on the bus,” the department says. “Take extra care when travelling alone, particularly in taxis and microbuses.”

In addition, the DOS stresses that tourists should stay well clear of Egypt’s borders with neighbouring nations, as they are heavily militarised and strictly off-limits to non-military personnel. It is also illegal to photograph police stations, military barracks and other sensitive public buildings.

Health

When staying in the more tourist-oriented regions of Egypt, health issues are by far the biggest threat to any visitor’s safety.

Unfortunately, Egypt’s resorts along the Red Sea coast have become “notoriously linked with food poisoning”, the Daily Express reports. In August, British nationals John and Susan Cooper died after allegedly being exposed to E. coli bacteria in their food at a hotel in Hurghada.

The DOS recommends that when selecting a restaurant, tourists should opt for “a clean and reputable place”, and “eat only freshly prepared, cooked foods, avoid all uncooked food including raw fruits and vegetables”. There have also been reports of hotel doctors overcharging for treatment, so travellers are advised to check their bills carefully.

Shark attacks, although very rare, have also claimed lives on the Red Sea coast. Since records began, 19 shark attacks have been recorded in Egypt. In August this year, a Czech man was killed by a shark  in Marsa Alam, in the first such incident in the country since 2015.

A red flag serves as a warning of shark sightings on the Red Sea coast, a sign for tourists to stay out of the water.

Another potential risk is the weather. From April to October, Egypt experiences high temperatures and low humidity. In the Valley of the Kings and the nearby city of Luxor - one of the most-visited cities in the country - the average daily peak temperature from June to August is 40C to 42C, and has been known to reach as high as 50C. As such, precautions such as high-factor sunscreen and plenty of water are a must.

Is it safe to visit Egypt?

Yes, but only with due diligence.

As well as avoiding high-risk areas as defined by the FCO or DOS, visitors should take precautions against extreme weather, check all food before eating it, and stay out of waters where sharks have been spotted. The Foreign Office notes that around 319,000 British nationals visited Egypt in 2017 and most visits are trouble free.

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