Tom Irwin visits Sharm el-Sheikh and finds a resort still very much open for business
Since 2011, Egypt has rarely been out of the news. Although the UK’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office has never advised against travel to the destination’s popular Red Sea resorts, tourism to the country has suffered, with British tourists numbering around one million each year, rather than the nearly 1.5 million who visited in 2010.
Numbers only tell part of the story, so at the end of October I set off for Sharm el-Sheikh with Red Sea Holidays to experience the situation on the ground.
On the flight over I sat next to Anne Bans from Lincolnshire, who was travelling with her husband and granddaughter Molly.
“I’ve never been worried,” said Anne, who has visited Sharm el-Sheikh eight times since 1993. “The people are so nice and they make such a fuss of the children. They hate the reputation that a few fanatics have given the whole country.
“In all the times I’ve been here – before and after the revolution – I’ve never felt unsafe. The only things I’ve noticed are the improvements; the roads and transport in particular are far better than when we first began coming.”
I checked into The Grand Hotel, part of the Red Sea Holidays group. One of the hotel’s representatives told me that while they’d normally be completely full in October, only around 70% of rooms were currently occupied.
They were very grateful for the support of British holidaymakers. At times over the past year many of the town’s hotels were host to Britons only, and it’s clear they appreciate those who have continued to visit.
Despite dramatic drops in international visitor numbers this summer – down by 45% in July year on year -– the Egyptian Minister of Tourism Hisham Zaazou is optimistic that the situation will improve, and has pledged direct advertising and marketing support for operators and airlines.
Savvy holidaymakers can take advantage of this quieter period before tourists inevitably begin to return to the country en masse, and experience its hotels and activities without the crowds.
WAVES AND DUNES
Joining one of Red Sea Holidays’ group excursions to Ras Mohammed National Park (from £33), I found the Red Sea lived up to its reputation as one of the world’s best snorkelling and diving destinations; as a big underwater fan this was something I was looking forward to, and I was delighted to find it lived up to the hype.
We sailed to the reef on board the glass-bottomed Nautilus, which allowed those that weren’t comfortable with getting in the water the chance to view the magic below – the park is home to exquisite coral reefs, wrecks and more than 1,000 species of fish.
A large group of us did take the plunge however, with less strong swimmers able to enjoy the experience in comfort by hanging onto a rubber ring, guided by our snorkelling instructor, so they too could spot everything from angel fish to clown fish – Nemo himself.
Something I’ve always wanted to do was to get behind the wheel of a quad bike (£42) and I was finally granted my wish. From the outskirts of town we drove at thrilling speed across the sand – skidding optional – eventually ending up at a Bedouin camp where we stopped for a tea break.
All that excitement made me hungry, and thankfully there’s some fantastic eating to be done in Sharm. Pick of the bunch for me was O Fogo, a South American restaurant situated in the Ghazala Gardens Hotel where I had a fantastic chicken skewer kebab.
Also noteworthy is the Kona Kai Japanese restaurant at Sharm el-Sheikh Marriott Resort at Na’ama Bay, where a Teppanyaki chef chucked knives about and set things aflame with great aplomb – the food is very tasty, but it’s worth going just to watch it being made.
Clients who want a night away from their hotel should head for either Na’ama Bay or Soho Square. Drawing inspiration from tried and tested attractions around the globe, Soho Square features dancing fountains, an ice bar, an oxygen bar, an ice rink and even an English-themed pub, the Queen Vic (of course!).
Na’ama Bay is a far less showy affair where you’re more likely to get attention from pushy market traders, but it has an edgier vibe and is home to loads of bars and restaurants.
On the flipside – and about as different to these areas as you can get – during the day it’s well worth visiting the town’s Coptic church. About 10% of Egypt’s population is Christian, and this beautiful building has an amazing interior that’s decorated wall to wall with bible stories – you don’t need to be religious to appreciate it, and it makes a nice change from the rest of the resort.
I really enjoyed my trip; there was nothing to suggest I was in anything other than a typical, fully-functioning resort. While I can understand that some travellers might question whether they would feel safe, one evening was enough to convince me that, short of major upheaval elsewhere in the country, Sharm is a top-notch holiday destination option, and a great value one at that.
My opinion was shared by Julie Lund, customer services advisor at Holiday Hypermarket, who told me her opinion had completely changed thanks to a fam trip to Sharm el-Sheikh in October.
“Before the trip I must admit I was quite wary,” she said. “I’d heard there were armed guards at ATMs and you had to go through metal detectors to get into hotels.
“Once there though it was nothing like that – there was security at a few checkpoints on the main roads, but you could see it was for your safety and that you weren’t in any danger at all.
“I thought Sharm was incredible, and there’s lots for people to do – it’s not just for one specific group of people – there’s diving, snorkelling, shopping, restaurants, a bit of everything. I’d definitely tell people to go.”
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