A special sea inlet that separates Africa and Asia, a natural jewel of coral reefs sprawling with marine life, the Red Sea remains one of the most popular tourist places in the world. During the tide of recent turbulence, this region has demonstrated inspiring resilience. Zarema Plaksij explores the unsinkable character of the destination.
From the Sinai Peninsula, wrapped by The Gulf of Suez and The Gulf Of Aqaba, down along the coasts of Egypt, Sudan and Saudi Arabia, onto the shores of Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen, the Red Sea completes its journey flowing into the majestic waters of the Indian Ocean.
Owing to its intrinsically rich natural and cultural diversity, over the years the area has logically evolved into a leisure, recreation and adventure tourism hub. “The Red Sea is famous as a beach holiday destination and, in fact, it’s by far one of the most beautiful beach destinations worldwide,” chairman and CEO, Travco Group International, Hamed El Chiaty told TTG. But, unparalleled as it may, unique beauty alone cannot keep the Red Sea tourism immune to outside influences.
Indeed, the fluctuating instability that has been shaking the region has unquestionably placed much stress on the Red Sea area, forcing travel and tourism providers to suffer a substantial set-back and resulting in a decline of visitor numbers. However, industry insiders are quietly confident that the Red Sea’s tourism business is resilient enough to regain its former strength. So what has been done to keep the destructive waves at bay?
One of the most immediate remedies placing any tourism destination back on its feet is easy and varied accessibility. While the Asian coast of the Red Sea, represented mainly by Saudi Arabian resorts and diving hotspots, enjoys a versatile network of air routes, it was the region’s most affected country – Egypt – that needed support in dealing with the consequences. Thus, Etihad Airways has lent a helping hand by introducing four additional services to Cairo as of June 2012; while Qatar Airways intends to introduce three additional flights to Cairo, taking frequency up to 12 per week.
Speaking on behalf of the likewise affected Jordan, owner and technical director, Dive Aqaba, Rod Abbotson informed TTG that currently his company, which attracts customers from all over the world to enjoy year-round boat diving and snorkelling, saw an increase in divers arriving to the Red Sea. In his opinion, this ensues from the current attempts to improve air connections between Jordan and Europe.
“We are expecting an improvement of business from Finland and Sweden due to a direct charter from Helsinki to Aqaba, which will operate from September 2012 to April 2013. Also, easyJet flights from the UK have made it cheaper for tourists to get to Jordan,” said Abbotson.
Resonating the importance of the air route improvement is director of sales and marketing, Kempinski Hotel Soma Bay, Amal El Kady, who maintains that in order to escalate the tourism potential of the Red Sea region, it is important to adopt an open skies policy that will, in turn, attract more regular flights: “We are actually monitoring now an increase in the number of charter flights bringing tourists seeking outstanding sunny vacations.”
In an overview of the Egyptian government exerts to improve sea, road and air connections to Sharm El Sheikh, general manager, The Ritz-Carlton, Sharm El Sheikh, Jean Francois Gouvrit said: “At present, the roads are connecting Sharm El Sheikh with the different cities of Sinai and the Nile Valley. Sharm El Sheikh International Airport has been developed and expanded to receive big aircraft, thus seeing a steady increase in the number of flights, accommodating now 1,200 passengers an hour. The port of Sharm El Sheikh, which can accommodate different types of vessels, also plays an essential role in connecting the city with the world.”
Uniting in their efforts to return the Red Sea to its former prosperity levels and build foundations for further progress on land, in the air, and in the sea, representatives of the Red Sea tourism industry expressed a concerted hope that regional political stability would consequently lead to rapid tourism growth.
“With political stability, the resorts along the Red Sea can offer the top product that is attractive for tourists, improve the quality of existing hotels and offer more five-star branded hotels. The recovery will take place hopefully during 2012, and, in the long run, will also be reinforced by diversification and modernisation of Egypt,” said resort general manager, Steigenberger Al Dau Resort, Hurghada, Lars Geweyer.
“The political scene moves towards stabilisation. After the presidential elections, we forecast that business will boom to the status it was in pre-revolution,” predicted regional director of sales and marketing, Sunrise Resorts & Cruises, Ramy Darwish.
Accentuating the importance of regaining a positive image of a safe and reliable destination is El Kady: “Constant campaigns promoting the stability of the internal situation are continuously having a positive impact on the tourism industry and will be reflected in more tourism investments in the future.”
Analysing the ability of the tourism business in Sharm El Sheikh to overcome the negative reverberations of the recent instability, business development manager, Red Sea Diving College, Vicki Jarman noted: “People in the area are keen to develop tourism, and, with so much to attract tourists, it will make a swift recovery.”
El Chiaty added. “Tourism in the Red Sea region is relatively stable at the moment and is expected to continue growing, especially in areas like Marsa Allam and Sharm El Sheikh, which are bouncing back to their old, prior to the revolution positions.”
Providing evidence of this shift in confidence, and contributing another valuable source for tourism revival, a number of leading hotel brands are stamping their presence – and indeed, demonstrating their faith in the fertility of this region – with the addition of new properties.
Most notably, Mövenpick Hotels & Resorts has voiced its commitment to Egypt’s tourism industry by adding three new resorts to its Egyptian portfolio in Hurghada, Abu Sama, and Naama Bay in Sharm El Sheikh.
Another example of the latest strive to support the hospitality sector of the Egyptian Red Sea coast is the imminent opening of the 420-room Sunrise Grand Select Arabian Beach Resort in Sharks Bay, that is set to offer five room categories to cater to the needs of a variety of travellers.
The addition of such properties on the hospitable shores of the Red Sea will undoubtedly help to further reinforce its long-renowned establishment as a leisure and family holiday destination. However, the region’s tourism scene is not uniform and increasingly emanates product versatility, reflected in the range of tourism offers that differ from country to country, mostly stipulated by cultural peculiarities.
Thus, displaying an impressive product diversity of Saudi Arabia, business development manager, National Vacation Company, Mohammad Imran Hassan told TTG that the company has seen a remarkable growth in post-Umrah trips that involve historical tours, archaeology, eco-tourism, family tourism, as well as sea and desert sports activities. “We already facilitate business travellers, family vacationers, Umrah pilgrims and the post-Umrah traffic for Saudi Arabia,” said Hassan.
Speaking for Jeddah, director of sales and marketing, Rosewood Corniche, Mohamed Karara informed: “Leisure has always been an essential pillar of the tourism industry in the Red Sea. Yet, we should not forget about the business, cultural, and religious forms of tourism that are also crucial for the development of the industry in this specific region.”
Meanwhile, in Egypt and Jordanian Aqaba, diving seems to be the most sought after tourism activity. Ranked among the best diving and snorkelling destinations in the world, the Red Sea offers unique visibility, rendering the true colours of the underwater life and marine geology.
“There is nothing that matches the beauty of diving or snorkelling in the Red Sea,” asserted El Chiaty.
Reflecting on the diving potential of the Egyptian Red Sea, Jarman noted: “Egypt offers year-round sun, great value-for-money and an easy-to-reach destination from Europe and other Middle Eastern countries. When you combine this with the world-class diving; a fabulous mixture of famous wrecks and reefs and exceptional diver education, Sharm el Sheikh will always feature highly on the divers’ destination list.”
Yet, Jarman stressed the importance of raising awareness among tourists that their interaction within the marine environment can damage an already fragile eco system. “It is important for tour operators and excursion coordinators to stress this fact to their guests. This will benefit the reefs and the incredible marine life, which in turn will draw more visitors,” she underscored.
However, apart from the impressive diversity of natural attractions such as diving, Gouvrit also drew attention to the importance of cultural and religious tourism on the Egyptian Red Sea coast. “We offer visiting historical sites like Moses Mount and the Monastery of St. Catherine, one of the very few early Christian building complexes. The monastery’s spiritual heritage is beyond estimation. While, religious pilgrims come from all over the world to watch the sunrise from the mountain’s peak,” noted Gouvrit.
Echoing the importance of leveraging religious and heritage tourism in Egypt is El Chiaty: “There are other attractions in the Red Sea that we should focus on. For instance, the religious tourism attractions in the area include Egypt’s two oldest Coptic monasteries – St. Antony’s Monastery, the oldest and largest monastery in Egypt dating back to the end of the fourth century, and St. Paul’s Monastery, the second oldest in Egypt."
A similar opinion was voiced by Karara: “The Red Sea region is characterised by its unique yet diverse heritage. I believe that organising more cultural and water sports festivities to promote this heritage and natural beauty would definitely attract audiences from all over the world.”
Even though the existing tourism potential is yielding profit, the destination, nonetheless, is far from confining itself to the obvious, on-hand tourism products.
Realising that the travel trade is a constantly evolving infrastructure, stimulating competition and innovation and requiring creative flexibility, the representatives of the Red Sea tourism business reported to be considering other tourism options.
For instance, Geweyer indicated that the development of MICE business for multinational companies has great potential in the region. While El Kady, acknowledging the future for MICE segment, also pointed to the importance of drawing attention to the development of golf, water sports, therapeutic and wellness tourism types.
General manager, Sonesta Pharaoh Bach Resort Hurghada, Osama Massoud, already building up on the property’s MICE capabilities, added: “The Red Sea has various attractions, that, if improved, can help increase the number of travellers. These are desert safaris, diving, snorkelling, as well as curative and culture tourism.”
“Different trends in the tourism industry will possibly emerge in the near future including wellness, wedding and honeymooners, and MICE,” forecasted vice president, Baron Hotels & Resorts, Sherif Shahein.
As rough roads lead to the stars, so is the Red Sea determined to combat the temporary set-back and, having become stronger than before, reach a new height on the stellar pedestal of the world’s top tourism destinations.