Israelis back to Sinai

“For me, Sinai is perfect because it’s a combination of desert and the sea,” she said. “Who needs more than the beach and a book?”

A tourist rests next to a camel under the stars near the summit of Mount Sinai (photo credit: REUTERS)
A tourist rests next to a camel under the stars near the summit of Mount Sinai
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Lior Tzur-Nidda, 36, watches her daughter playing in the sparkling pool with two friends at the Swisscare Nuweiba Resort Hotel in the coastal town of Nuweiba in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Next to the pool is a deserted beach with padded lounge chairs under shaded canopies looking out at the spectacular Red Sea.
It is peaceful, and a far cry from a previous trip to Sinai in 2004. She was 20 then, and came with her boyfriend, now her husband, and friends from New Zealand. They stayed in what is called a husha, a hut on the beach at the Beduin village of Ras a Satan (Devil’s Head).
“It was at night, and suddenly there was a giant explosion and everything was lit up like it was daytime,” she recalled. “I saw a huge plume of smoke about 500 meters from us, maybe less. After a minute there was a second explosion much closer, and then we waited for the third explosion but it didn’t come. I thought I also heard shooting but there was so much chaos that I’m not sure.”
That same night, two large car bombs exploded at the Taba Hilton, a hotel frequented by Israelis. A total of 32 people were killed, including 12 Israelis.
Tzur-Nidda says that Egyptian police came to the Beduin camp and urged Israelis to leave immediately. Most did, although she and her friends stayed until the next morning, thinking the border would be very crowded.
The next year, she said, she returned to Sinai, but felt tense and didn’t enjoy the trip. For many years after that she stayed away from Sinai, but last year, after her friends kept pressuring her to come with them, and hearing of more and more Israelis traveling to Sinai, she decided to come back. In the past year she’s gone three times, with two other families.
“For me, Sinai is perfect because it’s a combination of desert and the sea,” she said. “Who needs more than the beach and a book?”
Over her nine-day trip, she said, she read four books.
She and her husband also drove in their own car, switching to Egyptian license plates at the border.
“My fear is not of attacks – there are attacks in Israel too,” she said. “My fear is that I don’t know the language, and I don’t know who would help me if there is an attack.”
Driving her own car, she said, helped her feel more in control, and that she can get away if anything happens.
Tzur-Nidda is not alone. An official at the Israel Border Authority said that so far this year there had been 1.2 million entries and exits through the border at Taba between Israel and Egypt. There are no statistics of how many visitors stayed in Taba and how many drove further south to Nuweiba, Dahab or Sharm el-Sheikh.
The border crossing is quite simple. You pay an Israeli exit tax of 100 New Israeli shekels per person (about $29) on the Israeli side, and an entry tax of 400 Egyptian pounds (about $25) to enter Egypt, although those traveling only to Taba are exempt from this tax.
On the Egyptian side of the border is a bus station with dozens of vans that function as a sherut (shared taxi). It cost us 30 shekels ($8.50) per person for the hour-long drive to Nuweiba. On the way, our driver, who spends 45 days in a row working and sleeping in his van – returning to his family in Cairo for 10 days at a time – asked if I’d bring him Israeli-made Shoresh sandals on my next trip.
Most Israelis stay in hushot, or beach huts, for about 50 shekels ($15) per night including breakfast. In the area of Nuweiba, there is a string of beach camps known for hosting Israelis. The beach huts have minimal amenities – a mattress on the floor and a fan – and there is usually a restaurant in the center of the camp.
The mood in the camps is laid-back: many of the vacationers are post-army Israelis wanting to chill out, smoke cigarettes and a hookah, and dip in the sea. There are also quite a few families with young children.
Most of the Beduin and other Egyptians who work here speak more Hebrew than English.
At African Divers, which is part of the Swisscare Resort Hotel in Nuweiba, owner Hamdi Kassem says he has been struggling to keep the center running. He bought it in 2012, at the beginning of the Arab Spring in Egypt. Then in 2015, Islamic State shot down a Russian airliner traveling from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg, killing all 224 people aboard. Russia stopped all flights to Egypt, including Sinai, and European tourism dried up almost completely.
During Passover in 2017, Israel took the unusual step of closing its border with Egypt for 11 days over fears of terror attacks by groups affiliated with ISIS. But over the Passover holiday this year, the Israel Airports Authority reported that more than 110,000 Israelis crossed over into the Sinai.
Israelis started returning to Sinai in large numbers about two and a half years ago, Hamdi says, but Europeans have yet to come back in large numbers.
“Now is the Israeli season because they have four holidays in four weeks,” he said at his diving center. “But Israelis only do one or two dives. Europeans come for a longer period and can do 20 dives in 10 days.”
Most Europeans come in winter, when Sinai offers a warm respite from the European cold. Hamdi says that he prefers to take clients diving in Nuweiba, which is less well-known as a diving spot than Dahab or Sharm. He says water temperature is never less than 22 degrees, and visibility is at least 20 meters down.
There is an official Israeli travel advisory against going to Sinai.
“There continues to be a serious threat of terror attacks against tourists in Sinai, including Israelis, in the immediate future,” says the Israeli government warning. “Activities of the ‘Sinai faction’ [Islamic State] have recently been increased. We strongly recommend against travel to Sinai.”
That warning is being ignored as more and more Israelis visit Sinai, encouraged by cheap prices and quiet in the area.
“Despite the repeated official warnings, more and more Israeli tourists are coming over,” said Alvin Furrer, owner of the Swisscare resort. “A few months ago it was estimated that 380,000 people would cross the border in 2019, which is 20% more than although these numbers are concentrated in just a few key times of the year.”
Another new development is the growth in tourism of observant Jews. There is an active Facebook group called “Kosher Sinai Lovers,” which offers organized weekends in Sinai, mostly in Taba closer to the Israeli border. There is transportation from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and kosher meals with a kosher supervisor. The price is less than a bed and breakfast in most parts of Israel, with all food included.
The restaurants in Sinai also offer fish wrapped tightly in aluminum foil that would conform to kashrut rules. In Dahab, there are signs in Hebrew in some restaurants offering kosher food.
While Israelis are coming back, many hotels have shut down or limited their operation. The Swisscare Resort Hotel, for example, has only 12 suites open instead of 48. Along the beach in Nuweiba are skeletons of hotels that were never completed. After a series of terrorist attacks, Hilton pulled out of Sinai.
The demographics of visitors are also changing. While young Israelis, both pre- and post-army, have long defied the government travel warnings, now older Israelis are coming as well.
Nurit and Gonen Eshel came all the way from Kibbutz Snir near Israel’s border with Lebanon. They brought their three children, one of whom is about to be drafted into the army.
“We haven’t been to Sinai for 20 years and we wanted to remember our youth,” Nurit says, with a smile. “We were always a little afraid to come, but now more and more people like us are coming. You hear of one more and one more and now that we came, other people will come too.”
They took a one-day tour to Ras Abu Galum for snorkeling, and enjoyed the beach at Nuweiba. She said that overall she felt more comfortable than she thought she would.
“It doesn’t feel like it’s ‘abroad,’ and we are not worried about being seen as Israelis because there are Israelis everywhere,” she said. “As soon as I crossed the border, it felt so familiar that I wasn’t afraid.”