On my last visit to Sharm el Sheikh, the feature that set the Egyptian resort apart from other seaside sun spots was the collection of rudimentary road blocks at which traffic was required to stop for equally rudimentary checks.
This time, as my bus neared Sharm el Sheikh from the city of Dahab, I felt I was approaching a 21st-century version of the Berlin Wall.
An intimidating security barrier, six metres high, separates Sharm el Sheikh from the rest of the Sinai Peninsula. Columns festooned with cameras stand in place of watchtowers manned by soldiers.
Now, when the Berlin Wall ran through the middle of a big European city, it marked the world’s deepest political divide: between the capitalist west and the communist east. In contrast, the Sharm el Sheikh protection barrier merely separates one part of Egypt – the location most popular with foreign tourists – from the rest of the nation.
The great wall of Sharm was built to secure the resort against insurgents from the Sinai desert. It is evidently solid enough to allow the Foreign Office to conclude that the resort itself is safe enough: “The FCO advise against all but essential travel to the governorate of South Sinai, except the area within the Sharm el Sheikh perimeter barrier.”
Until October, though, the Foreign Office warned against flying in and out of the resort’s airport – which had the effect of closing down almost all UK tourism.
Sharm el Sheikh and its surroundings have had a tragic history of terrorism this century. On 23 July 2005, 88 people died when three bombs were detonated in the resort; the following year, Dahab, northeast along the coast, was hit by another triple bombing, with 23 deaths.
An even deadlier event took place on 31 October 2015. All 224 passengers and crew aboard a Russian charter flight to St Petersburg died when their Airbus A321 crashed less than half an hour after take-off from Sharm el Sheikh. Investigators concluded a bomb was placed onboard while the aircraft was on the ground at the Egyptian airport.
Within days the Foreign Office deemed the airport too dangerous for UK airlines to use. An airlift was organised in which British passengers were flown home on aircraft with sealed holds, with their luggage carried separately.
When the British flight ban was finally lifted late in October 2019, the Foreign Office said: “The UK government has worked with Egyptian authorities to enable flights to resume.”
The first plane from the UK to Sharm el Sheikh touched down just before Christmas at Egypt’s premier resort.
I travelled out a few days ahead to see what awaited the returning British travellers – not just in the resort, but at the airport on their way home. I wanted to assess the enhanced standards that persuaded the British government that Sharm el Sheikh airport is now safe.
By way of a modest qualification: before I became a travel journalist, I worked as a security screener at Gatwick airport. And, probably like you, I have been through a good few airports and found some significant differences between the security experience.
I was also comparing the checks with the last time I flew out. Then, one of the officials demanded a tip. This time, none of the many staff I encountered did so.
But some of them did scold me, as I inadvertently made some missteps on my way through the series of hurdles that stand between the passenger and the plane.
Checks began at the road entrance to the airport from the highway, with the first of many passport examinations and dogs sniffing my baggage.
I don’t want to give details of every step, but twice the details from my passport were diligently inscribed in a ledger. My laptop was swabbed for traces of explosives twice. I went through two full-body pat-downs, within sight of each other. And I was photographed and fingerprinted, the latter with hi-tech machines that you just waft your hands over.
As a job-creation scheme, security at Sharm el Sheikh airport has been an outstanding success. And, of course, I hope desperately that it does the job of keeping travellers and staff safe. But I found the experience troubling.
Good aviation security involves putting in layers of protection. At Sharm el Sheikh, though, stepping up security appears to involve the same checks repeated multiple times.
One hundred miles away at Israel’s newest airport, Ramon, the contrast could not be stronger. When I flew from there in November, the traditional metal arch/X-ray checkpoint was the easiest I have encountered in recent years. No need to drink or throw away your bottle of water, nor extract your laptop and liquids. You can keep your shoes on, too.
The Israeli security authorities believe they can find out enough from a pre-flight interview – which in my case took half an hour – to conclude that, like the vast majority of passengers, you mean no harm to your fellow travellers.
Perhaps looking into someone’s eyes can tell you more than peering with the help of microscopic rays into their cabin baggage.
Egypt deserves the economic boost that returning British holidaymakers will bring. And, conversely, travellers deserve the best possible airport security.
I hope Egypt and Israel can exchange some expertise on aviation security, and help reduce the risks for travellers to a superb corner of the Red Sea.
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