Why Israeli tourists are returning to Sinai despite warnings

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Article Summary
Israeli official warnings about security threats are not stopping young Israelis from heading down to Sinai beaches.

TABA, Egypt — Media outlets across Israel echoed warnings Jan. 24 urging citizens vacationing in the Sinai to leave the peninsula immediately. Reports claimed that Israeli intelligence officials had unearthed a very high and concrete threat to Israeli nationals there and raised the risk of danger to the highest level. Less than an hour south of Eilat, however, on a beach near the town of Nuweiba, a group of Israeli youngsters continued chatting in Hebrew to their Bedouin hosts while relaxing at a camp on the stunning Sinai coast on the Red Sea's Gulf of Aqaba.

“It is my first time here in Sinai, but a lot of my friends have come here before,” said Aaron Avitsur, a 21-year-old from Jerusalem. “Everyone in Israel knows that Sinai has great beaches and allows a freer time than in Israel.”

Avitsur further stated, “People come here because they want to find something different than what they are used to. For me, I think it is the peace and quiet and the way that the stars shine at night. After all, everybody wants some quiet in their lives sometimes.”

When asked about the possible dangers of visiting the Sinai, Avitsur pauses before looking at the seascape, and responding, “I feel safe here. After all, Israel is dangerous too, so it is no different for me.”

Avitsur's views were seconded by Issac Cohen, a 24-year-old first-time visitor who also hails from Jerusalem. Cohen said, “I think it is much quieter and more relaxed than Israel. It is so much quieter and cheaper.” 

He provided a candid glimpse into the mindset of the many Israelis choosing to ignore government warnings and head for the beaches of Sinai. “When I return to Israel, I will definitely tell my friends to visit Sinai, Cohen said. “But to be honest, everybody my age already knows, and it is becoming very popular to come here.” 

Sinai has long held a special place in the hearts of many Israelis. The affair started after the Israeli military seized control of the peninsula in the 1967 Six-Day War, and Israel occupied it for the next 15 years. During that time, Israelis flocked to the areas they called Neviot (known in Arabic as Nuweiba) and Di-zahav (which is known today by its Arabic name, Dahab), and the area became a hippie-like haven for Israelis seeking relaxation and a liberal way of life far removed from the social and moral codes of conventional Israeli society.

Egypt regained full control of Sinai in the 1980s, but today, the coastal stretch from the Israeli border south to the resort town of Dahab is once again populated by scores of Bedouin-owned beach camps with basic huts and facilities for young Israelis seeking refuge from politics and the strictures of Israeli society. The beach air smells of locally grown hashish and carries the sound of acoustic guitars and psychedelic trance music, which has become synonymous with Israeli youth culture.

The Egyptian state has taken a back seat on the beaches of Nuweiba and Ras Shitan, with local Bedouin tribes at the helm in their traditional homeland. The state's constant presence is, however, evident in the police and military checkpoints and patrols every couple of kilometers along the coastal highway south of Taba. The checkpoints serve as a reminder of the ongoing concern of ensuring security in the area. In 2014, three Korean tourists and a bus driver were killed when a bomb detonated on board their bus as they waited to cross the Israeli border at Taba. The attack was later claimed by the local Islamic State affiliate, which has launched an insurgency elsewhere in the peninsula in recent years. And on Oct. 7, 2004, bombers targeted a camp at Ras Shitan and the nearby Taba Hilton hotel, killing 12 Israelis. Israeli vacationers at a neighboring camp had a lucky escape when a bomb detonated there on the same day but failed to cause any casualties.

In the years following the 2004 attacks, in which al-Qaeda linked militants claimed responsibility, many of the camps lay empty, as Israelis and other tourists steered clear of Sinai. The situation was exacerbated by concerns about instability in Egypt following the 2011 Egyptian revolution and the subsequent military coup two years later. Many camps in the area were forced to close, and local Bedouin were left facing hard times.

The sound of Hebrew has returned to Sinai in recent months, with visitors receiving a warm welcome from the Bedouin owners of the traditional beach camps, which have hosted travelers for decades.

Ahmed Soliman and his family have owned the Fayrouz Beach Camp in Nuweiba for 35 years. “Before, many Israelis used to come here, but since the revolution, people were afraid of terrorism and security problems,” Soliman told Al-Monitor. “But now, they can see that everything is safe here, and we have a lot of tourists coming once again from Israel.”

Soliman emphasized, “They can see that Sinai is very safe and beautiful. I expect to see many more Israelis arriving this year, and we have a big beach party planned for March with many Israeli guests already booking ahead. It is very good, not only for us, but for everybody in the area. Other businesses, such as supermarkets and restaurants, are all benefiting from the return of the Israelis.”

Bernard Munir, a former banking executive from Cairo who now owns the Ayla Camp, also in Nuweiba, holds his own theory about what attracts Israeli youths to the peninsula.

“The return of Israelis started in July 2016 with the first wave, when we had 2,000 to 3,000 Israelis here in Nuweiba,” Munir said. “During the Sukkot holiday, I believe it reached over 7,500. It certainly would not have been like this in previous years. I think that they come here for the vibe of the place and the positive energy, how simple it is.” Muir added, “Of course, they like to come, sit in the husha [a seating area in Bedouin culture] with the Bedouin and just hang out and smoke.”

It is not only young first-timers making the trip south of Taba. Along with them are many Sinai “veterans,” who are crossing the border for the first time in decades. It has been 20 years since Rani Iron, a 43-year-old from Tel Aviv, last visited Sinai. He has returned with friends to stay at the Big Dune camp, near the village of Tarabin.

“Sinai and Nuweiba are something very special for us. We love the atmosphere, we love the people. We love the simple things in life, and that is what we find here,” Iron told Al-Monitor. “We will be back, we want to explore further and head south to Dahab because we love diving, and it has some of the best diving in the world. Whether Israelis decide to come here or not is a decision that they must make for themselves, but for me, I will be back. People here have made me feel very safe.”

Found in: red sea, gulf of aqaba, arab spring, terrorism, bedouin, tourism, sinai

Conor Sheils is an Irish journalist currently based in Tunis. He has previously reported for national and international media organizations in Cairo, London and Dublin.

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