Mussa al-Nahas sat outside his fragrance and spice shop overlooking the Red Sea, beaming at the sight of Russian tourists returning to Sharm el-Sheikh six years after a terror attack.
“The resumption of Russian flights has prompted other countries to open up as well,” he added.
Nahas, 42, has spent half of his life in the idyllic, sun-drenched Red Sea resort, which has suffered economically since the downing of a Metrojet plane in 2015, which killed 224 mostly Russian passengers.
The so-called Islamic State jihadist group, which has a presence in the volatile North Sinai region, claimed responsibility for the attack. Following the crash, Russia imposed a blanket ban on all flights to the Red Sea beginning in 2015, and even to Cairo for a few weeks.
The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 was a double blow, driving away the country’s last remaining tourists.
Tourism accounts for about 10% of Egypt’s GDP, despite the fact that one-third of the country’s 100 million people live in poverty.
“We used to say Sharm el-Sheikh had turned into a ghost town,” Nahas said.
However, the fortunes of Sharm, as it is affectionately known, began to improve in August, when the first plane from Moscow touched down at the local airport. The long-standing ban was finally lifted after years of diplomatic efforts.
Abdelqader Abdel-Rahman, 30, was delighted to see tourists milling around town as he prepared to take a group of Hungarian adventurers on a desert safari on quad bikes.
Currently, about 20 flights from Russia arrive in Sharm each week.
Egypt’s tourism ministry has waived visa fees for 28 countries, including many from Eastern Europe, in order to capitalize on the increased interest in tourism following months of global blockades.
According to official figures, the country received half a million tourists in April alone, which was twice as many as in January. “The town has begun to move since Russian planes began to return. Many people have returned to their old jobs and reopened their bazaars and restaurants “According to Abdel-Rahman.
Tourists are also relieved to be back in the largest Arab country, where there is so much to see and do, from the pyramids in the north to the beauty of the Red Sea corals.
Hungarian Roland Juni, 41, was sipping tea in a Bedouin tent in the desert before heading out to the dunes, and he said he hadn’t been there in a decade.
“I don’t notice many differences. I liked it ten years ago and I still like it now” he stated. “Now I see a lot of Russians here. More than ever before, “He continued.
Egypt’s tourism revenues reached $13 billion in 2019, prior to the pandemic’s onslaught. However, they fell to $4 billion last year, which was a huge shock for the industry’s two million workers.
Russian tourists are also lining up for Sharm’s marine activities, which include snorkeling, diving, and jet skiing.
Alexei Volnyago, 35, extolled from the deck of a boat: “In Russia, we don’t have seas like this… It’s breathtaking over here.”
Another Russian tourist named Alexei was busy picking out juicy, ripe mangoes at a major shopping mall, a delicacy to savor in hot Egyptian climes. Shopkeeper Nahas recalled his Russian doctor friend who for 11 years spent six months annually in Sharm. “We used to call him Alexei the Sharmawi,” Nahas said.