Sharks and revolution empty Egypt's Red Sea resorts

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The Independent Travel

Tourists have started trickling back to Egypt's balmy Red Sea coast in the wake of its national uprising, but ghost town resorts are still reeling from crises that preceded the unrest.

The beaches had emptied following a bizarre series of shark attacks late last year, and some souvenir vendors and other businesses here in Sharm El-Sheikh say they are still hurting from the global financial crisis.

On Wednesday a few dozen tanned tourists in shorts and summer dresses made their way through the mostly deserted town centre, past empty Bedouin-style cafes with sheets spread over cushions to shield them from the dusty air.

"We are very pleased, because it's empty and there are no Russians," said Nick, who came from Devon in southwestern England with his wife and 10-year-old twins on a trip they booked "before the sharks and before the demonstrations."

The couple, who declined to give their last name, said their only regret was not waiting until travel operators began offering major discounts as hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demand the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

"As far as events in Cairo, you would never know, if you watch TV, that it's the same country," his wife Julia said. "It's like comparing New York to the rest of the United States."

Tourists from the former Soviet Union have long flocked to Sharm, where many signs are written in Russian, but these days most hail from Britain, which did not restrict travel to the Red Sea even at the height of the unrest.

There were no demonstrations in Sharm - a sprawling resort on the southern tip of the arid and mountainous Sinai Peninsula - but that was in part because locals did not want to scare away customers.

"Here in Sharm it was fine," said Steffi Vetterli, a Swiss dive instructor who moved to town four years ago.

"The people here are working. They don't care about Cairo because they need the money," she said.

The reefs off Egypt's Red Sea coast offer some of the best diving in the world, with sea turtles, barracudas and spotted eagle rays swimming through the florid coral, the cloudless desert sky reflected on placid waters.

Mottled whale sharks - docile giants that pose little danger to humans - will migrate through starting in June.

But this year the dive centre where Vetterli works has had virtually no customers in weeks. "The winter is usually slow, but this year we have no bookings until March," she said.

That is in part due to a series of attacks in December in which other species of sharks mauled five foreign tourists close to shore, killing one of them and prompting local authorities to temporarily close beaches.

Vetterli said staff divers had seen no sign of the sharks since then, and hotels have since used nets to cordon off safe swimming areas.

Egypt's other major tourist sites - the Great Pyramids outside Cairo and the temples and tombs of Luxor and Aswan - have also been virtually deserted, and this week tour guides held a protest of sorts in the shadow of the Sphinx.

The $10 billion a year tourism industry accounts for more than a tenth of the country's GDP and employs more than 12 percent of its workforce.

More than 14 million tourists visited Egypt in 2010, a record number, with around a third of them hitting the Red Sea Coast.

The vital industry has weathered regional unrest before, including after bombings in Sharm El-Sheikh in 2005 that killed 88 people.

But Sherif, 30, who has been working for 12 years in a souvenir shop packed with rows of tiny wooden pharaonic statues, said it only took a few months for business to recover after that attack, while the financial crisis lingered.

The situation has been made worse by the small clique of businessmen with political connections who dominate the local economy, he says, asking that his last name not be published for fear of retribution.

Former Egyptian tourism minister Zuhair Garana is among several members of Mubarak's sacked government who have been banned from leaving the country as authorities investigate corruption allegations.

Sherif insists the shop owners and hotel workers here supported the hundreds of thousands of youth-led demonstrators who packed Cairo's Tahrir Square to demand the fall of Mubarak's regime, even if they didn't show it.

"We cannot demonstrate here in front of the tourists because it would hurt our business, but we have the same frustrations as the people who were in Tahrir," he says.