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Last Updated: Saturday, 23 July, 2005, 13:21 GMT 14:21 UK
Blasts cast shadow over Egypt's recovery
By Martin Asser
BBC News

Sinai Peninsula
The mix of Arab and Western influences attracts tourists to Sharm
Egypt's tourism-terrorism nightmare continues, and - with every bloody event - seems to get inexorably worse.

The bombings in Sharm al-Sheikh are just the latest in a string of atrocities targeting Egypt's vital tourist industry.

The first examples came in 1992-94 - sporadic ambushes and bombings carried out by a small hardline militant group, known for its brutality, called the Gamaa Islamiya or Islamic group.

It may have claimed few lives, but the bloodshed caused a significant drop in visitor numbers - about 800,000 fewer than a yearly total of 3.3m before the attacks.

That still meant that 2.5m travellers were adventurous enough to visit Egypt's cultural and historic highlights, even if the nature of many people's visits had changed.

Tourists were discouraged from mingling with the locals or going off the beaten track.

The government also launched a massive crackdown of Islamist supporters, and armed guards at tourist sites became the norm.

Slaughter

But there was much worse to come.

In 1996, gunmen attacked a group of Greek tourists waiting outside a Cairo hotel, apparently mistaking them for Israelis. Nineteen were killed and 17 wounded.

And a year later, a bomb exploded outside the Egyptian museum in Cairo, killing nine German tourists.

Hilton Taba Hotel
The Hilton in Taba was hit by an explosion in October 2004
Then came the coup de grace, gunmen systematically slaughtering 58 tourists and three policemen at the Hatshepsut temple in Luxor, at the heart of Upper Egypt's pharaonic archaeological treasures.

The temple was somewhere which might have been on any visitor's agenda.

And the picture of terrified tourists scrambling for cover behind 3,500-year-old columns caused mass cancellations of holiday bookings to Egypt.

It took the country's tourist industry many years to recover from these blows.

New development

The recovery was helped by the fact that it seemed the Gamaa Islamiya was beaten; its leaders were jailed, and, fragmented, it suspended attacks on civilians.

Come the new millennium - despite the global tourism downturn caused by the 11 September attacks - Egypt was once again a popular tourist destination.

More than 5m visitors were coming to the country, about a quarter of them drawn to the newly-developed resort of Sharm al-Sheikh.

It seemed like any other modern holiday paradise: wonderful facilities, great watersports, amazing diving opportunities and a friendly atmosphere with welcoming locals.

Most of all Sharm - as it became known - seemed safe, despite the troubled times in surrounding areas.

That was because it was located right at the tip of the Sinai peninsula, apparently insulated by mountains and desert from the teeming population centres that bred Islamic militancy stoked by a repressive security regime.

Return to violence

Then came the October 2004 attacks that deliberately targeted Israeli tourists flocking to the Sinai for the Sukkot holiday.

Unlike the 1990s attacks, the Taba-Nuweiba bombings were seen not so much as an attack on Egypt's tourist industry, but rather on the eastern Sinai resorts that had become a playground for Israeli tourists.

In other words it seemed to be a response to the violence in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere. That said the 34 dead included Egyptians, Italians and Russians, as well as at least 12 Israelis.

Many fewer Israelis have since returned to Sinai - in fact Israeli resorts on the Mediterranean have been enjoying a significant revival this summer.

But nevertheless, the evidence was that Sharm al-Sheikh was not seen as a likely target by the unlucky tourists and resort workers thronging the town on Friday night.





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