RAS SHAITAN, Sinai – By midday on Remembrance Day, the wait time at the Taba crossing from Eilat to Egypt had reached a fever pitch.
After nearly two hours on the Israeli side, families – five, six, seven members deep – rushed two rickety Egyptian passport control desks; there was no attempt made at even considering forming a line. The Egyptian port authority worker barely looks up as he takes a stack of passports – mostly of Israeli Arabs – and flips, stamps, and shuffles the confirmed documents with the skill of a Las Vegas card dealer.
Yet the commotion at the border belies the tourist reality in Egypt, that the Sinai Peninsula is empty.
Terrorism and general instability in Egypt and the region are keeping tourists away. In October 2015, an explosion aboard a Russian airliner traveling from the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg killed all 224 passengers.
The attack – which was claimed by ISIS – caused Russia to suspend all flights between the Sinai and the Federation. At the time, Britain also advised its citizens to return home.
The number of tourists to Sinai, which boasts a unique landscape where the jagged desert mountains sharply give way to pristine blue water, has halved, from 440,700 in March compared with 834,600 in the same month a year earlier. Reuters reported that Egyptian tourism brought in $500 million in the first quarter of 2016, compared to $1.5 billion the previous year.
Israelis are advised against tourism to Egypt, which gets a level 3 security warning, a basic concrete threat, according to the website of the National Security Council counterterrorism bureau.
However, the threat level for Sinai in particular is at a 1, the highest concrete threat.
According to the website, the threat to Israelis in Sinai is that terrorist organizations continue to plan to execute attacks, with an emphasis on kidnapping Israelis.
In 2004, Israeli tourism numbers dropped dramatically after terrorist bombings occurred in three resorts in the peninsula. At the Hilton in Taba and Moon Island and Badiya camps at Ras Shaitan, a total of 34 people were killed, 12 of them Israelis.
Before the attack, 400,000 Israelis visited the peninsula each year. Over a decade later, the number is a trickle.
Between 2008 and 2013 the number of people crossing through the Taba border crossing to Egypt dropped by 55 percent; from more than 1.4 million in 2008 to 779,342 in 2013.
The road from the Taba crossing down the Red Sea coast is gravel and dirt, undergoing renovation as early as a week ago. Pleasant Egyptian sentries man a checkpoint by the grand and expansive Taba Heights Miramar resort, a self-contained village reminiscent of Moroccan architecture, offering a handshake to the taxi drivers and a short look at the passengers.
Yet the five star hotels and all-inclusive resorts look like ghost towns, sitting in a state of construction or under renovation. The behemoth resorts eventually give way to modest beach huts and in the bay of Ras Shaitan – named for a particular jutting rock into the sea – one can sleep in minimalist shelters, steps away from clear blue water and coral reefs, for a decent price. After four days with two meals a day, countless bottles of water and a snorkel rental here or there, the price comes out to around $60 (exit and entrance fees in Israel and Egypt are NIS 100 and NIS 50, respectively).
Under the clear night sky, my travel companion notes, “Who needs a five star restaurant when you can have a 1,000 star restaurant.”
At Moon Island last week, there was no mention of the 2004 bombings, nor of the 2014 bus bombing at Taba, when a bomb exploded on a bus carrying mostly Korean Christian tourists near the crossing.
Instead, the conversations under canopies revolved around fond memories of previous visits, and for the first-timers, how they felt “testing the waters” of travel in Sinai. One poor Israeli tourist had stepped on a sea urchin; a fellow Israeli generously offered a healing oil to placate the poison.
The gated entrances to the hotels and beaches, army checkpoints and Hebrew-speaking proprietors give a sense of seclusion and safety. The area is renowned for its snorkeling, diving and generally laid-back atmosphere (alcohol is in short supply, but hash is rolled into cigarettes in abundance).
For Israelis, it’s a respite from the overcrowded and commercial Eilat; and for the adventurer, a view of the mountains of Saudi Arabia provide a certain thrill to be close to a country that is almost impossible to enter.
A few dozen tourists scatter throughout encampments in the area. There’s the Little Head meditation retreat, cabins brightly painted with images of mermaids and slogans of “Love is all you need”; then Ayash Camp, known for its eclectic mix of musicians and artists, its owners are a Beduin-Israeli couple; and then Moon Island, all set up with cabanas providing shade from the intense sun, Egyptian woven rugs to recline on and bottled Guava juice always on hand.
Complementing the smattering of Israelis and foreign tourists, a few young, educated, well-off Egyptians make the six-hour drive down from Cairo for a few days of sun and fun.
Yet even in this oasis the modern world is not so far away. Many of these hushot (“huts”) are outfitted with electricity, there are Wi-Fi hotspots and running water in the communal bathrooms. The registration desk sits under a thatched palm-tree roof, the computer and copy machine exposed to the elements. Even from three years ago, one tourist remarked, this is a major change.
It would seem in this paradise the biggest danger is the waxing moon, with the light drowning out the stars.