Tragedy casts shadow over Blair's holiday destination

When Tony Blair brought his family on holiday to Egypt for a third consecutive year, it was a coup for the country's tourism industry.

The message was loud and clear: this Western-friendly Arab nation is safe for tourism - and fit for the likes of world leaders. Year-round temperate weather, beaches lined with palm trees and relatively untouched coral reefs make Sinai's seaside resorts a draw for tourists uninterested in the country's ancient temples or religious and cultural heritage.

Sharm el Sheikh, a strip of five-star hotels along the blue waters of Na'ama Bay, recycles European package tour groups so effectively that many visitors whisk in and out of this desert oasis without ever fully registering that they have visited the Middle East. At luxury hotels, women sunbathe topless - something that would be unthinkable elsewhere in Egypt - and young and trendy locals can escape the disapproval their partying might attract in more conservative areas.

But when an Egyptian charter plane carrying 135 mostly French passengers to Paris via Cairo crashed shortly after takeoff early yesterday, the shadow of terrorism hung over this quiet pocket of luxury on Egypt's Red Sea coast. The Aviation Minister, Ahmed Shafiq, was quick to suggest a technical failure, but since the authorities admitted contact with the doomed aircraft had been lost, some questioned whether he had any evidence to support the assertion. It appeared to show fear that the tourism industry, which has recovered from the 1997 Luxor massacre to become Egypt's main source of foreign currency, could once again be in jeopardy.

Any hint of terrorism would deal a critical blow to the $4.3bn (£2.4bn) that six million tourists bring in annually, more than revenues from oil and the Suez Canal. When Islamic militants attacked a temple in Luxor's famous Valley of the Queens a little over six years ago, killing 58 tourists, it seemed impossible for tourism to bounce back as quickly as it has. When Mr Blair first came here for a holiday in 2001, it was seen as an important factor in dispelling foreign fears of visiting Egypt.

It was too soon yesterday to assess the impact of the latest tragedy. Some 12 hours after the crash, Sharm el Sheikh's small and drab international airport was operating as usual. Planes continued to bring in fresh parties of visitors, while buses unloaded browned holidaymakers preparing to fly home. Few of the passengers thronging the terminal seemed aware there had been a disaster offshore, and appeared puzzled at the pack of journalists and photographers waiting for news.

A plane was due to arrive overnight with relatives of the victims, however, and Sharm el Sheikh's relative insulation from the horrors of the outside world was unlikely to last.

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