Simon Calder: Holidaymakers' perception of dangers they face is distorted

The high of 27C predicted for today is a strong draw for the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. But for many of the million-plus British visitors who will fly to the Sinai Peninsula this year, the warm, rich waters of the Red Sea comprise an even stronger attraction.

The death of a German tourist, reported to be snorkelling in a “protected” area close to the shore, has caused understandable consternation among holidaymakers in the resort. The tragedy will alarm those booked to spend Christmas or New Year along the Red Sea coast. They can also expect their enjoyment to be tempered by the restrictions that the Egyptian authorities will no doubt impose on bathers, snorkellers and scuba divers. But by fixating on oceanic white-tips and other sharks, tourists are overlooking far more substantial threats.

Perceptions of risk among travellers are dangerously distorted. Many holidaymakers fret about flying, even though it is 21 years since a British or Irish airline suffered a fatal accident involving a jet aircraft. And while shark attacks are not unknown in the waters off the Sinai Peninsula, statistically terrorism is a far bigger threat.

“Since 2004 there have been three separate bomb attacks in the Sinai Peninsula,” the Foreign Office warns; British nationals were killed or injured in each of these attacks. The most recent was in April 2006 in the resort of Dahab, but the bloodiest took place a year earlier when 88 people – 11 of them British – died in co-ordinated suicide bombings on Sharm el-Sheikh. The US State Department says travellers “who plan to visit the Sinai in spite of the persistent threat of terrorist attacks should exercise great caution”.

The Foreign Office, meanwhile, urges caution about all manner of risks. Specified dangers range from quad bike accidents in Sinai to unexploded landmines on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast near the rapidly expanding resort of Marsa Matruh.

Rail and sea transport in Egypt have a poor reputation, but road traffic is the biggest killer: even though the nation has far fewer motorists than Britain, the death rate on the roads is twice as high as the UK – with a fatality every 90 minutes on average. It seems unlikely that tourists who seek out the land-based attractions of the peninsula – notably Mount Sinai and St Catherine's Monastery – will pay much heed to these numbers.

The Egyptian authorities will focus firmly on the economic impact of the tragedy. In a nation so dependent on tourism, attacks by sharks could prove as damaging as terrorist outrages. Tourism officials will take some comfort from the resilience of the UK market: past experience suggests British holidaymakers will accept all kinds of risks in return for guaranteed sunshine.



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