How Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh turned into a tourism hub


Old market area of Egypt’s resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh and the Grand Mosque of al-Sahaba (Companions of the Prophet) at sunset during the COP27 climate conference on November 19. AFP PHOTO | NMG

For 14 years, Kenya has harboured an ambitious plan to establish three resort cities to strengthen its tourism sector.

Kenya’s Vision 2030 provides for the construction of Lake Turkana, Lamu and Isiolo resort cities by the turn of the decade.

A resort city or town is an urban centre where tourism or holidaying are the main components of the local economy and culture.

Such a city is designed with an efficient transport system, financial, communication and trade infrastructure. A resort city will usually have an airport or waterway, roads, hotels and restaurants, souvenir shops, banks and shopping malls.

According to Vision 2030, these grand undertakings would be financed by the private sector for Sh145 billion. They would also form part of the Lamu Port, South Sudan, Ethiopia Transport Corridor (LAPSSET) project.

Meanwhile, the government would have to put up the necessary infrastructure as a condition for these projects.

Eight years to the deadline, however, critical works have yet to begin on these sites as government records show that all three projects are still at the planning stage.

By May this year, renovation works at Manda Airport in Lamu, for instance, were still incomplete. At the time, the works had fallen behind schedule by 10 months.

The airport was to be upgraded and its taxiway and main terminal expanded to accommodate international tourists. Today, there is still no designated parking lot for aircraft at the airport.

At the current sluggish pace, meeting the 2030 deadline remains a pipedream.

Kenya, though, has many lessons to learn from Sharm-el-Sheikh, the Egyptian resort city in the Sinai Peninsula.

When the city was selected to host this year’s UN global climate conference, COP27, it was a celebration of its tremendous transformation from a nondescript town to one of the Middle East’s cultural and financial centres.

Only 60 years ago, this municipality south of Mount Sinai was a bare, sun-scorched and windswept outpost with little promise.

Today, Sharm-el-Sheikh, or simply Sharm, is a thriving trade, tourism and cultural hub that earns Egypt millions of dollars in revenue every year.

Its quaint white sandy beaches are always teeming with tourists, lounging in sunbeds, swimming or parasailing. According to the travel website, the English alone account for 9,000 visitors here daily.

Agriculture, trade at the Suez Canal and tourism are the key pillars of Egypt’s economy, currently valued at $404 billion, according to World Bank estimates.

Sharm-el-Sheikh is at the heart of this equation, providing a lifeline to the predominantly desert country.

So, what did Sharm-el-Sheikh get right and what lessons can Kenya pick as it develops its resort cities?

In the last 20 years, organised development, heavy investment in infrastructure, aggressive promotion and a thriving hospitality industry have seen Sharm’s fortune turn a corner.

For three decades now, Egypt has embarked on relentless development of infrastructure in this city, putting up dual carriage roads, and water and power connections.

Mass transport in Sharm-el-Sheikh is green, with electric buses and vans plying its roads.

Whereas about 15 billion pounds ($650 million) was spent to renovate the city ahead of COP27, billions of dollars have gone to build its key infrastructure such as roads on the past four decades.  

When she appeared before the National Assembly’s Committee on Appointments (CoA) for vetting last month, Cabinet Secretary for Tourism Penina Malonza said she would embark on an aggressive promotion campaign to market the country.

Malonza pledges, however, falling short of explaining how the government would develop support infrastructure to boost tourism, if at all. 

‘‘We will reach out to our traditional markets and new and emerging markets like China and Japan. We will also develop new niche products,” Malonza said. 

Mohammed Hersi of Pollmans Tours, however, lauds the government for committing money to boost network coverage, tarmacking of roads around national parks and increasing the railway network in the country. 

‘‘Failing to dual the Nairobi-Mombasa road sixty years after independence is a downside,’’ notes Hersi, saying this must be done as a matter of urgency.

Hersi says it is possible to replicate the developments in Sharm-el-Sheikh in the coastal town of Lamu. ‘‘We just need to expand the airport and allow international flights to come in.’’

But it is by converting a previously small local airport to an international air travel hub that Sharm-el-Sheikh struck a fortune. The airport was opened in 1968 as an Israeli Air Force base during the occupation of the Sinai Peninsula by Israel. It would become a civilian airport in 1979 when Israel withdrew from the region. 

With three fully functional terminals and the capacity to handle 10 million passengers per year, Sharm-el-Sheikh is Egypt’s third busiest airport today after Cairo and Hurghada international airports. It serves more than 100 destinations, both local and international, and has about 60 airlines operating from here. 

Already, expansion plans are underway to increase its annual passenger turnover to 18 million by 2025.  

Before the Covid-19 global pandemic, most tour packages in Kenya targeted international tourists. The industry only looked inwards when lockdowns around the world affected international travel. 

In Egypt, domestic tourism has been a core component of the sector for years. Sharm, for instance, has curated its travel products to make them attractive to local travellers like Nada Arafat, who has been to the city on more than a dozen occasions.

‘‘Sharm is the place to come to when you want to escape the pressure of life in Cairo for a few days. It is also quite affordable. Many Egyptian budget travellers come here for vacation throughout the year,’’ explains the resident of Cairo. 

With as little as $500 (Sh60000), Arafat says, one can obtain a half-board booking into a hotel for a week.

Meanwhile, organisation of trade is one of Sharm’s key strengths as a resort city. Restaurants, shopping malls, souvenir shops, jewellery stores, salons, spas, banks and nightclubs are allocated a section of the city to allow efficient regulation. 

There are about two other shops within a 50 metre-radius of Ahmed Mostafa’s perfume shop. But the perfumer in Sharm-el-Sheikh would rather be here than elsewhere. 

‘‘There are enough tourists coming to Sharm every day. Competition among businesses is fair. I make good sales from this location,’’ Mostafa says. 

In this city, there are no sheds or temporary roadside structures whatsoever, and all businesses are housed in permanent structures. 

Here, motorised transport is prohibited in shopping areas. In avenues such as Naama Bay, only pedestrians are allowed. But for a city that was designed with tourism in mind, order is a key selling point of Sharm. 

If Egypt is the civilisation capital of the Arab World, then Sharm-el-Sheikh is the pot in which this cultural brew steams. You will eat at a restaurant owned by an Iraqi, buy jewellery at a Lebanese’s shop, watch a dance performance by Yemeni women before driven to your hotel by a Jordanian. This rich cultural integration gives visitors a homey feeling in a foreign country. 

Admittedly, luck has also played a part in Sharm’s fortune. Proximity to Europe, the world’s largest tourist source region, guarantees the city a steady in-flow of travellers all year round. 

Italians, the Spanish, Britons, French, Russians, Americans and Ukrainians constitute the bulk of tourists in the city. To them, Sharm offers an alternative destination to nearby popular tour havens of Ibiza in Spain, Crete and Athens in Greece, Malta and Cyprus and Ephesus in Turkey. 

In Sharm, most merchants accept global currencies such as US dollars, Swiss francs, Euros and Sterling Pound beside the local currency, the Egyptian Pound. The city has a thriving forex business, with tourists able to exchange money even on the streets. 

In Kenya, however, the majority of merchants accept payment only in Kenya shillings, with only a handful of especially small traders taking dollars for payments. Euro, Sterling Pound and Swiss Francs are rarely used. 

Sharm is a relatively safe city to tour and live in. There is also a tourism police unit, with stations located within 200 metres of each other.

‘‘There are many checkpoints on roads to Sharm. Sometimes it could take an hour to go through some of them. I have never had any security incident in the years I have come here,’’ says Arafat. 

Italian traveller Leonardo Lucio agrees. ‘‘I always feel safer in Sharm than in my city Milan,’’ says Lucio, on his third visit to the city.  

Incidentally, Kenya’s upcoming resort cities are in counties that experience sporadic ethnic conflicts or terror-related activities.  

Its ability to attract service multinationals has further boosted Sharm’s appeal to both local and international tourists. The Savoy and Novotel are some of the hotel brands with operations here. For fast food enthusiasts, Sharm-el-Sheikh has at least three McDonald’s stores.

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