Russian flights return to the Red Sea as Egypt’s tourism slowly makes a comeback

Sonia Farid

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Following an almost three-year ban and intensive rounds of negotiations, the Russian national carrier Aeroflot resumed flights to Cairo in April 2018. The ban, which started in October 2015 following the explosion of a bomb on a Russian plane over Sharm al-Sheikh, had a negative impact on the Egyptian tourism industry. Previously, Egypt used to receive millions of Russian tourists every year.

While the Cairo flights constituted a major breakthrough, the resumption of trips to Red Sea resorts was seen as the real remedy for the blow tourism had suffered following the ban. This explains why the landing on February 14 of the first flight carrying Russian tourists in Hurghada, located along the Red Sea coast, was hailed with so much optimism. But whether this optimism was well-placed or not is still uncertain.

Atef Abdel Latif, head of Mosafiron travel agency, said that Russians constituted 50 percent of tourists visiting Hurghada before the ban, and that is why their return is expected to boost tourism in the city. Russians are not among tourists who spend a lot of money, depending on the resorts where they stay for recreational activities. However, Abdel Latif said, they usually stay for a long time. He also noted that the weather encourages them to come in large numbers.

Deputy Director of the General Union of Egyptian Air Transport Yosri Abdel Wahab also argued that the weather plays a major role in the influx of Russian tourists. Russian tourism in Egypt is always at its peak in winter, he said, when Russia hits freezing temperatures.

For Abdel Wahab, the resumption of Russian flights to Hurghada is the start of a series of trips to different Egyptian cities. He expected direct flights to Luxor and Aswan to start very soon.

It is worth noting that while the Cairo-Moscow flights are operated by Aeroflot, trips to Hurghada are neither direct nor officially authorized by the Russian government. Sameh Selim of the Russian tour operator Pegas Touristik explained that flights take off from Moscow to Antalya on the Russian national carrier, then from Antalya to Hurghada on Turkish Airlines. He added that the reason for the company’s decision to organize those trips was that the ban on flights to the Red Sea has not in fact been lifted.

Reservations for the trips, Selim said, opened in January and business has been going well so far. According to him, the trip lasts an average of seven days and costs around USD 1,100 including flight and accommodation. Selim added that the company will run eight flights per week to Hurghada and 12 to Sharm al-Sheikh from Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kazan, Ufa, and other cities.

Chairman of the Tourism Syndicate Bassem Halaka attributes the initiative made by Russian tour operators to the popularity of Egyptian destinations among Russian tourists. “Tour operators were impatient to resume trips to Egypt and they did try through other countries such as Israel and Jordan. It did not work, so they opted for Antalya and it’s working,” he said. “Those companies lost a lot of money when trips to Egypt stopped.”

Halaka said that the Russian companies are violating the ban, but in an indirect way since technically flights from Russia head to Turkey, not Egypt. “Because there is a change of flights in Turkey, the companies are not doing anything illegal.”

Asked whether the Russian government will lift the ban upon seeing tourists travel in big numbers to Egypt, Halaka said that it is only a matter of time. “The Russian government knows that this is only a start and that tourists will start flocking to Egypt anyway. I think by the end of February they will send a committee to formalize lifting the ban in order to save face.”

According to Mikhail Bogdanov, Russian deputy foreign minister and special presidential envoy for the Middle East and Africa, it is not yet clear when the ban will be completely lifted. “There are no deadlines,” he said.

Journalist Amal Hussein writes that there are no indications that flights from Russia to Red Sea resorts will be resumed any time soon. “Two delegations visited Hurghada and Sharm al-Sheikh airports, which used to receive 90 percent of Russian tourism in Egypt, to check security measures … But according to sources from the Egyptian Ministry of Civil Aviation and a Russian-Egyptian tour operator, an official lift of the ban does not seem imminent.”

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