Anyone who can reach the Red Sea area as quickly and easily as the inhabitants of the Gulf are in luck.
Just a couple of hours away are some of the best beach vacations in the world. The proof: people from all over the world flock there and tourism is booming.
Largely private-sector dominated, few of the world’s best hotel chains have turned down opportunities to establish themselves along the shores of the Red Sea. The area can provide mostly anything to accommodate guests on the look out for a leisure vacation by the sea. Mother Earth provides the sun, the beach and the sea while man has added a range of facilities such as good accommodation and food, entertainment and sports.
The blend of international flair and local culture is mostly familiar to visitors from the Gulf area. Language will never be a problem whether you speak Arabic or English. Order regional food or smoke a water pipe any time you like.
According to figures handed to us by the Egyptian Tourist Authority (ETA) the country as a whole had over 8,00,000 visitors in March this year. This was an increase by 26 per cent from the same month in 2005. The increase from last year is lower for the whole of the first quarter of the year. Egypt had over two million visitors during January, February and March. That was an increase by 16 per cent from last year.
Not a small part of the visitors came from the Arab world; 116,140 or almost one seventh of all visitors to Egypt in March. From the GCC countries came 25,883 which was an increase by 24 per cent from the same month last year.
Most visitors, however, came from the OECD countries with 107,000 Germans, 96,000 Italians and 73,000 from the UK. The Russian Federation also contributed a handsome number: 87,000 visitors during the month of March.
These figures don’t actually reveal how many of the visitors went on to spend time at the Red Sea or were indeed in the country for recreation. What we do know, however, is that tourists on the Red Sea today outnumber those who come for a more traditional cultural tour. And that’s not to say that those two forms of activities can’t easily be combined.
It is mostly understood by Egyptians what a great and growing asset tourism is. Tourism provides plenty of job opportunities and not a small part of the national income. A recent international campaign to promote tourism was titled ‘Egypt, the land where everyone wears a smile.’ This is not merely a slogan. Visitors are mostly greeted exceptionally well while the locals like to point out that it’s an age-old Arab tradition to show hospitality to a guest.
However, the minister of tourism, Ahmed Al Maghraby, has initiated plans to launch an awareness programme for locals to get acquainted with the importance of tourism. This is part of the ministry of tourism’s scheme to attract 16 million tourists by 2014.
Another player in the tourism field is the Egyptian Travel Agents Association (ETAA) which organises training programes for travel agency staff. Courses have included such things as preparing programmes and pricing them, drivers’ training, e-marketing and how to develop religious tourism or incentive tourism.
Further, in terms of ongoing improvements, infrastructure is constantly being improved to cater to the growing number of visitors. Airports are being upgraded and new ones are being added. Visitors to the Red Sea for the most part arrive by charter flights directly to airports such as the main ones at Hurghada or Sharm El Sheikh or they fly to Cairo and continue by local flights to their destinations. It is, of course, also possible to reach the Red Sea travelling over land from Cairo. There are, for instance, excellent bus services that operate the stretch between Cairo and El Gouna or Hurghada.
The initial and main pull on Red Sea tourism was and is the sea itself. With its fantastic underwater world, few sites can match the Red Sea when it comes to attracting scuba divers and snorkelling enthusiasts. Visitors from all over the world fly in to see some of the over 800 species of fishes and the teeming life of the coral reefs. And if you aren’t willing to dive or snorkel, it’s possible to see the underwater wonders through the glass bottom of a boat or from a submarine. More unusual activities like deep-sea fishing is also available while the fish that end up on your plate may well have been pulled out of the sea only a few moments earlier.
The area is as unique as it is fragile. The tourism industry is well aware of the possible environmental dangers and takes a pride in following strict rules and guidelines.
And there is a lot more that speaks to the advantage of the Red Sea area. The weather can’t be praised enough. It is pleasant all-year round. Not too hot in summer, not humid, and it doesn’t get cold in winter. Some parts can get a bit of wind, which brings the windsurfers out, but for the most part you can expect stable weather conditions. And for swimming in the sea, even the water is comfortably warm, around 30 degrees all year round.
There are many options for vacations and these are constantly increasing. Take Hurghada, for instance. If you visited the place five years ago you wouldn’t recognise it today. That’s how much it has grown. The hotels at this once small fishing village are now bigger and more. Hurghada is also, perhaps, the most popular resort town along the Egyptian Red Sea shore and has a distinctly Mediterranean feel to it. One finds here all the entertainment that could possibly be expected from a beach resort anywhere in the world.
Hurghada offers everything from simple accommodation to small hotels and large up-scale resort compounds. Compounds come with complete facilities including bars, restaurants and entertainment. And there are all-inclusive resorts too. Hurghada is almost like two cities in one, the eclectic downtown area on one side and the individual resorts on the other.
Traditionally considered a more affordable option than the other great resort-hub, Sharm El Sheikh on the Sinai, Hurghada caters to a wider range of budgets including many five-star establishments.
Just north of Hurghada is the very upscale resort-community El Gouna. Here you find a range of hotels, villas, restaurants and shops arranged on green islands intersected by a system of lagoons with the open sea on one side and the Red Sea mountains on the other. A USPGA-sized 18-hole championship golf course is another of the attractions here.
Travel south from Hurghada to find instead Soma Bay. Besides a number of beautiful hotels, there is also a fine golf course, nice beaches and a world-famous spa.
Sharm El Sheikh, situated on the Sinai peninsula, offers an altogether different atmosphere. The hotels in central Na’ama Bay are lined up next to each other and connected by a beach walk. The hotels are on one side of the paved walk and the sandy beach on the other. Na’ama Bay also has a shopping area and plenty of options in terms of restaurants and night life.
The adjacent Sharm Al Maya bay is less developed with more space separating the beach resorts. And further out in the area are many more scattered resort compounds, all with their individual feel and options.
All in all, Sharm El Sheikh is very upscale with few hotels other than four or five stars. It is also a world-class spot for scuba diving expeditions.
Wherever you find yourself on the Red Sea, you will have a wide range of activities to choose from. There is everything from diving and snorkelling to desert safari trips and sport activities. Spas seem to be as common these days as fitness centres. Don’t expect to look far for night clubs or other forms of entertainment.
The Red Sea area has something for everyone and the prices are compatible with most other parts of the world. Citizens of Arab countries need no entry visas and other nationals can obtain visas directly at the airport on arrival.
By Jane Hamrin