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Behind the Headlines: Tourism Bustles in Sinai Town That Israel Returned to Egypt

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A little more than a decade after Israel withdrew from the last strip of the Sinai desert, Egypt has developed a tourism industry on the peninsula with a potential for tremendous future growth.

The swath of desert that had long been thought of as a strategic asset when figuring out the Israeli-Egyptian military balance has now become more of an economic asset, threatening to take away business from Israel’s own resorts.

In the past five years, Egyptians have worked hard at building the eastern coast of the peninsula into a major tourism resort, aimed at competing with famous tourism centers such as Agadir in Morocco, the Canary Islands of Spain and, of most concern to Israel, the resort town of Eilat, also located on the Red Sea.

Standing in front of the modern Hilton Feyrouz Hotel at Sharm al-Sheikh, the director-general of Hilton operations in Sinai, Claude Chesnais of France, said his company is basing its future operations on the assumption that a regional peace agreement is just around the corner.

Consequently, the company is building two new hotels along this beautiful 140-mile stretch of golden sand and crystal-clear blue waters, the site of a string of coral reefs and islands providing some of the most spectacular underwater scenery and richest marine life in the world.

Hilton is now opening a casino at its Taba hotel, just at the border crossing with Israel. As with Sharm al-Sheikh, Taba was returned to Egypt, but years after Israel had developed it.

Israel turned over to Egypt an already fully functioning vacation paradise, including the hotel, which was purchased by Hilton.

The development in Taba alone has raised growing concern among nearby Eilat hoteliers.

“We are concerned that people will spend the night in Eilat but will spend their money in Taba,” said Rafi Hochman, the mayor of Eilat.

The Egyptians, notorious for being mired in bureaucratic red tape, seemed to have pushed aside all the formalities when they planned the future of the Sinai beaches.

HOTEL ROOMS FOR $50 A NIGHT

Within five years, Na’ama Bay, just north of the town of Sharm al-Sheikh, has become the site of luxury hotels, along with economy-class hotels, many offering deals of an average of $50 a night per couple.

Palm trees planted along the beach have turned the place into an attractive combination of green, blue and golden sands.

A multitude of restaurants, varying in their fare from Middle Eastern food to Italian food, provide the tourist with a wide selection.

Some 70 percent of the tourists come here for scuba diving; others just want to lie by the water and relax.

And those tourists who seek action around the clock can find it easily. Local travel companies offer jeep trips to the colorful Sinai mountains, which reach almost all the way to the coast. Other offers include day-and-night hikes in the mountains, escorted by Bedouins and camels.

The town itself comes alive with activity as soon as the sun disappears in the mountains, with discotheques playing the latest pop music. Small open-air coffeehouses are filled with young people from all over the world.

Sharm al-Sheikh differs from many other resorts in that it relies heavily on young tourists, some of whom spend their nights at nearby shacks for as little as $3 a night.

The resort is aimed directly at attracting the Israeli tourism market. On average, a third of the tourists come from Israel, drawn by prices and facilities highly competitive with those in Israel.

Egypt, which in the past year has lost a third of its annual stream of tourists owing to attacks by Moslem fundamentalists, is making a particular effort to develop tourism in Sinai, where most of the population is composed of the traditionally hospitable Bedouins.

Uri Weiser and Shuki Preminger drove to Sharm al-Sheikh in their own car from Eilat. The first night they spent in a shack at Sharks Bay, along with other young tourists.

“We wanted to feel linked with the earth,” Weiser said. The next night they moved up, to the Hilton. Comfort was apparently also a goal.

‘AN EFFORT TO MAKE YOU FEEL GOOD’

“We feel much more in common with the Egyptians and Bedouin here than we have felt, for example, with the Swiss and Germans when touring Europe,” said Preminger.

“They make such an effort to make you feel good that you feel like it’s almost a family. It is not the regular relationship between tourists and those who serve them,” he said.

For Israelis, the visit to Sharm al-Sheikh also has its emotional difficulties. This is the site of the Israeli-built town of Ofira, which until 1973 Israelis believed they would never leave.

The late Defense Minister Moshe Dayan made a statement at the time which he later learned to regret: “Better Sharm al-Sheikh without peace than peace without Sharm al-Sheikh.”

The housing complex which had served Israeli officers now serves as an extension of the Hilton. Other parts of the former Israeli town now house Egyptian families, who make a living off the local tourism industry.

Israelis also have not forgotten how in October 1985 an entire Israeli family was shot to death while relaxing on the Ras Burka beach, halfway between Sharm al-Sheikh and Eilat.

A final concern of tourists is the poor health facilities. Although there are two private clinics to handle diving accidents, there is no hospital here. Acute health cases must be driven or flown to the El-Tur hospital, some 62 miles away on the western coast of the peninsula, or to Eilat, across the border with Israel.

But despite these reservations, Israelis who vacation here leave thrilled.

“This is all we need in a vacation,” said Armond Sharon, a police officer from Jerusalem. “As far as we are concerned, this is the essence of the peace treaty with Egypt.”

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