Will Egypt's Most Famous Beach Resort Survive the New Regime?Peter Savodnik
At a little past 1:00 a.m., the Ukrainian girls at Pacha start to mob the dance floor. Pacha is the glitziest, most over-the-top nightclub in Sharm el-Sheikh, on the southern tip of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The interior of the club is typical of clubs: dark, cavernous, with a huge, constantly rotating, video montage behind the DJ, who is Egyptian and has a headset wrapped around his neck and stands atop his record-player throne rocking mechanically. There are also wind machines and long, orange-red flames made of crepe paper billowing out of two columns, and a sprinkling of Arab men along the perimeter of the dance floor, and a clutch of girls with dyed, flaxen hair, smoking and talking to each other and drinking vodka. As the girls stream onto the small swatch of dance floor, a voice bellows over the hi-fi: “We’re Brooklyn! We’re Brooklyn!”
It was here that, long after the Islamists gained power in Cairo, the DJs kept spinning, the snorkelers kept diving, and the girls of the former Soviet Union kept turning up with their thongs and Vogue cigarettes. “The Russian girls, excuse me, they are here for the sex with the Arab men—this is known,” says Said Taha El Salled, who drives a taxi in the winter, when the tourists usually flock to Sharm.
In the future, Sharm el-Sheikh may very well be called Egypt’s Last Bastion of Fun. The fate of Sharm hangs in the balance in the run-off election that will be held in mid-June, with Egyptians choosing their first president since former leader Hosni Mubarak was ejected in the wake of the Arab Spring. The finalists are Ahmed Shafik, a former prime minister under the Mubarak regime, and Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The winner will answer to a parliament elected in December 2011 with an Islamist majority—comprised of Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the ultraconservative Salafis’ Nour Party.
Many ultraconservative Salafis want an end to alcohol, gambling, mixed-sex beaches, and bikinis. There has even been talk of razing the Pyramids (the better to squash idol worship). While few expect them to get their way, the recent kidnapping of two Americans outside Sharm won’t exactly boost tourism.
Business in Sharm had already been gradually slowing for several years. In July 2005, a string of Islamist terrorist attacks left 88 dead and were among the bloodiest in the country’s history. Then, in December 2010, a shark killed a 70-year-old German woman. (Oddly, one of Sharm el-Sheikh’s biggest beaches is called Sharks Bay.)
Islamist rhetoric has had a chilling effect. “For sure this is bad,” says Zaki Hassan, the 26-year-old manager of Pacha. “We’re down 50 percent this year. Normally, we have people from Brazil, Argentina, Turkey. Not now.”
At the Grand Rotana, a five-star resort nestled along Sharks Bay, occupancy rates are at an all-time low. (Waiters, towel boys, bellboys, and fitness-club staff all say this, but no one will speak openly about it.) The water slide, usually clogged with kids, is empty; the hotel’s Zen Spa, a ghost town. Pulse, the Rotana’s answer to Pacha, appears to have been shuttered for the season. Sky Lounge, which was once overflowing with sunburned Brits and Italians smoking hookahs and sipping raspberry-flavored vodka, no longer stays open past 8:00 or 9:00 p.m.
Mahmoud Ibraheem, who makes a living driving Jeep-loads of tourists around the desert, says business is off 25 percent. “What’s happening in Cairo, it’s a problem, of course,” he says. “But I’ll tell you something—this is talk. When they [Islamists] arrive in government, they will not do these things.”
Most Islamist leaders are aware that tourism is Egypt’s biggest business—an estimated 15 million foreigners visited the country in 2010—and they have sought to quell fears that they’re going to turn it into Saudi Arabia, where movie theaters are verboten, to say nothing of, say, massage parlors. Shadi Hamid, the Brookings Doha Center’s director of research, says the Brotherhood, which controls the largest bloc of seats in parliament, is focused on the economy. Clamping down on tourism would only hinder growth, so, for now, seaside getaways are safe. Also, Hamid notes, Red Sea resorts like Sharm and Hurghada are far from Cairo—and the public eye. (Nearly 240 miles of desert separate Cairo and Sharm, and even if they were closer, Sharm’s Western hotel rates mean most Egyptians can’t afford to visit.) “It’s possible to have an enclave strategy,” Hamid says.
So far the countries that are benefiting the most from Egypt’s woes include those that have been hardest hit by the European financial crisis—Greece and Spain. “We’d expect Western Med destinations to continue to benefit this year,” TUI’s Allan wrote. “Winter destinations that are proving popular include the Canaries and Cape Verde.” But no one knows where the next Sharm will be.
Said Taha El Salled, the cab driver, says there’s not going to be another Sharm, ever. Sharm will always be Sharm. There are just going to be a few minor changes. “What we are saying,” says El Salled, “is, excuse me, ‘We don’t want sex on the street.’ You can have the sex in the hotel room, but not, excuse me, in the street. That is all.” Unfortunately, he says, “The foreigners do not respect this is Muslim country, and you cannot do everything.” Hassan, Pacha’s manager, says club-goers just want to dance, drink, see their friends—have fun. He says this is a very delicate moment in Egypt’s history. “If they have the right rulers, you’ll see twice as much tourism here,” Hassan says. “But if they don’t”—he shrugs—“it will be very bad, very lame.”
Glancing at a fleet of empty chaise lounges around noon, Boris V., who is in a Speedo and looks to be in his early forties and refuses to share his last name, says he has been coming to Sharm for the past eight years. He marvels at how beautiful the sky and sea and corral are at noon—and at the fact that no one is around to enjoy it. Boris’s two female companions are in their early twenties and smoking Vogue cigarettes and sipping Bombay Sapphires with a splash of tonic water. Both of them have navel pierces and are wearing aviator sunglasses. One of the girls says only Russians remain undaunted by what she calls “stupid revolution.”