Resort’s safe-haven reputation at risk

Tourists at the beach in Sharm el-Sheikh on Monday. The resort has been promoted by Egypt as the crown jewel of its tourist industry and a redoubt of security against  militant violence.
Tourists at the beach in Sharm el-Sheikh on Monday. The resort has been promoted by Egypt as the crown jewel of its tourist industry and a redoubt of security against militant violence. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

CAIRO • The Egyptian government has long promoted the glittering resort of Sharm el-Sheikh as both the crown jewel of its tourist industry and a redoubt of security against militant violence.

As an insurgency based in northern Sinai raised alarms about travel to broad sections of the country, the Egyptian authorities and Western governments held out Sharm el-Sheikh, at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, as a safe haven. The steady flow of sun-seekers - increasingly, budget-minded Russians - was a bright spot in Egypt’s deeply troubled tourism industry.

Now, the crash of a Russian passenger jet that took off from the resort has threatened its reputation.

  • Plane crash theories

  • International experts are probing why Russian plane Metrojet Flight 9268 crashed in Egypt. Here are some of the theories they will focus on:

    MECHANICAL ERROR

    Metrojet on Monday said its jet was in "excellent" condition, ruling out a technical fault. Aviation officials, however, slammed such assertions as premature.

    An official from Egypt's air control authority said the captain had complained that the communication equipment had failed.

    Investigators will also look at repairs made on the plane after it scraped its tail on a runway in 2001, because it is one of the few things known to cause a sudden mid-air break-up.

    HUMAN ERROR

    The airline said captain Valery Nemov had over 12,000 hours of flying experience, including 3,860 hours on an Airbus A321, the model of the crashed jet. Weather conditions were also fine.

    SHOT DOWN BY ISIS

    Egypt's president has dismissed claims that the jet was downed by terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as "propaganda", echoing US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who said it was "unlikely".

    A source in a panel analysing the black boxes also said the plane was not struck from the outside, based on a preliminary examination.

    "ISIS does not have the gear to knock out a plane at 9,000m," said Mr Gerard Feldzer, former director of France's Air and Space Museum. To reach a plane at that altitude "requires trained people and equipment that ISIS does not have, to my knowledge", according to Mr Jean-Paul Troadec, the former director of France's BEA aviation investigation agency.

    TERRORIST ATTACK

    "We don't have any direct evidence of any terrorist involvement yet," Mr Clapper said on Monday.

    But aviation experts refused to rule out a terrorist attack, arguing a bomb could have been placed on board the aircraft.

    "Something could have happened lower down, or someone on board could have forced the pilot to descend, and an engine could have exploded when the aircraft was lower," one expert said.

    AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

Although the cause of the crash remained unknown, an Egyptian arm of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has claimed responsibility.

Even the plausibility of such an unconfirmed claim underscores the tenuous state of both public security and the tourist industry in Egypt more than two years after a military takeover.

The new government continues to battle the hardened fighters of ISIS in Sinai and a growing movement of young amateurs who have turned to bombings or shootings as retribution against perceived supporters of the military takeover. Hundreds of members of the Egyptian security forces and a growing numberof civilians have died.

“Even though up until now, the fighting has been mainly confined to the North Sinai and the Western desert, this government has a long way to go to be able to contain the militant groups, and that is why something like this could be so plausible,” said Mr Mokhtar Awad, a research associate at the Centre for American Progress, who tracks Islamist violence in Egypt.

Sharm el-Sheikh’s reputation for security is only 10 years old. In July 2005, three coordinated bombs ripped through an upscale hotel, a local market and a carpark, killing at least 90 people. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in Egyptian history at the time.

The Egyptian government, dependent on tourism for hard currency, responded with a sweeping upgrade of Sharm el-Sheikh’s security that has won widespread praise from other governments, with a vast system of video surveillance and special equipment to detect explosive material in passing vehicles.

Both the United States and British governments have said Sharm el-Sheikh is a place of relative security. But in a sign of concern over the unknown circumstances behind the crash, the US Embassy on Monday instructed staff not to travel anywhere in the Sinai Peninsula pending the outcome of the probe. It had previously made an exception for air travel to Sharm el-Sheikh.

Vacationers from Russia, Germany, Italy and Britain still visited the resort’s beaches in large numbers during the years of political turmoil that followed the 2011 uprising. Tourism officials encouraged airlines to start direct flights to Sharm el-Sheikh.

But it has hardly been immune to the wider tourism crisis. Mr Mina Badr, owner of the Blue Stone Restaurant in the resort, said while the number of tourists remained steady, many tended to spend less.

Like many business owners in the resort town, Mr Badr was anxiously awaiting the outcome of the crash investigation: “If someone brought it down, things might be ruined.”

Already, tour operators in Russia said they were feeling the effects of the crash. Ms Irina Tyurina, press secretary of the Russian Tourism Industry Union, was quoted by Interfax as saying that tourism agencies were reporting up to a 50 per cent drop in sales last Saturday, the day of the crash.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 04, 2015, with the headline 'Plane crash theories'. Print Edition | Subscribe