For most Jews, Passover is the feast that recalls the Exodus from Egypt through the Sinai desert. But this year Sinai is expecting a reversal in traffic, as the peninsula prepares to welcome what could be the largest number of Israeli visitors to the peninsula since the split in the Red Sea.
The expected surge in visitor numbers is due to a new direct flight from Tel Aviv to Sharm el-Sheikh on Arkia, Israel’s low-cost airline, which is expected to launch over Passover.
It is also the first Passover season since Israel’s National Security Council reduced its travel warning for parts of the Sinai Peninsula for the first time in more than a decade. And after two years of pandemic lockdowns and cancellations, many Israelis are eager to leave the country.
Just before the pandemic, travel to Sinai hit record highs. In October 2019, during the Jewish holiday season, when many Israelis have holidays from work and school, more than 150,000 Israelis visited Sinai.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Israel closed the Sinai entrance to the Taba border to Israelis for 54 weeks.
As of summer 2020, international tourists could pass, but because Israel and Egypt were closed to international tourists during parts of the pandemic, the passage was rarely used.
Taba opened to just 300 Israelis a day on March 31, 2021, with the number of crossing permits increasing throughout the summer of 2021. The Transportation Ministry opened the border fully, without restrictions, in September last year .
When COVID-19 hit in March 2020 and everything ground to a halt, suddenly empty shacks and restaurants plunged into a more extreme plunge than previous downturns. But these companies had already gone through difficult times.
In recent decades, Sinai has frequently experienced geopolitical instability that causes tourism to plunge and then slowly rebound to higher levels, a cycle that seems to repeat itself every few years.
Terrorist attacks, including the 2004 Hilton Taba and Ras Shaitan bombings, and the 2015 bombing of the Russian Metrojet airliner which took off from Sharm el-Sheikh, have caused sudden changes in tourism levels.
From 2016, Israeli tourism to the Sinai began to climb steadily, nearly doubling between 2017 and 2019, according to the Interior Ministry. Many beaches popular among Israelis have rushed to build more huts and more amenities for the growing number of guests.
So when coronavirus shutdowns wreaked havoc in other tourism-based economies around the world, many beach camp owners took advantage of the lull to continue expanding for customers they knew they would come back.
Building back better
In March 2020, 38-year-old Farag Ode had just completed his first year as the new manager of New Moon Island, a beach camp his family owned and ran after splitting from Moon Island.
New Moon Island looked like many other Ras Shaitan beach camps, with a scattering of bamboo huts on the beach. But Ode had bigger visions, and he was overseeing major renovations, including the addition of a glass-panelled restaurant, a new reception building and a new section of air-conditioned rooms, when the pandemic shut everything down.
“We totally shut down the place for three or four months, with just security guards and people watering the plants here,” he said. “All the workers went home, and we paid them half their wages and gave them rice for their families.”
Ode said that between their savings and the sale of some of their vehicles, they were able to get through the lockdown period and continue construction projects started before the pandemic.
Egyptians in Cairo began dribbling in the summer of 2020, after the Sinai was declared a “green zone” for domestic travelers who could provide a negative COVID test. The Israelis started coming back, slowly, in March 2021. New Moon Island slowly increased its capacity from 25% to 50%, and finally to 100% after all staff were vaccinated.
In the fall of 2021, before the Omicron variant wiped out many travel plans, New Moon Island and most other beaches along the Ras Shaitan strip were at capacity almost every weekend.
Even so, Ode said, tourists’ tastes had changed and they demanded accommodations with toilets and air conditioning – not the usual Sinai husha, a simple bamboo shack on the beach.
With global warming and rising temperatures, very few tourists want to stay in non-air-conditioned accommodation in the summer, he said.
Other nearby accommodations including Adam Camp and Little Head Camp, also in Ras Shaitan, have also added air-conditioned rooms and beachfront bars in recent years.
“You always have to keep following the circle of trends, you can’t stop the circle,” Ode said. “Some camps have stopped and don’t follow trends, and they don’t have jobs. Those who have moved with the trends, they have work.
If the Hasidim don’t go to Uman, no one goes to Sinai
No one was angrier about the year-long border closure than Guy Shiloh, a lawyer and activist who runs the Sinai Lovers Facebook group and website, a popular resource for Israelis planning trips to the Sinai.
During the pandemic, Shiloh and other activists filed four petitions to the High Court of Justice to force the Interior Ministry to open the Taba border post, pointing to the fact that Ben Gurion Airport was open.
One of the things that frustrated Shiloh the most was how the call to reopen the border has become politicized and distorted during the pandemic. Rumors swirled that the border with Sinai was closed in 2020 as punishment because ultra-Orthodox Israelis could not travel to Uman in Ukraine as they often do on Rosh Hashanah, Shiloh said.
“So that meant everything became very political, right and left, liberal and conservative. Someone who wanted to open Sinai is against the government, and if you support the government, you want to keep Sinai closed,” he said.
For Shiloh, a champion of the region who provided advice to thousands of curious Israeli travelers through his Facebook group and vast network of contacts, it was painful to see something he loved become politicized.
“In December 2020, they opened Dubai, and 70,000 Israelis flew to Dubai in the first month and came back with a lot of coronavirus,” Shiloh said. “But the Sinai, they remained closed without giving a reason.”
According to statistics from the Population Immigration and Border Authority, in 2017 more than 360,000 Israelis entered the Sinai through the Taba border crossing. In 2019, that number nearly doubled to nearly 700,000 people.
In 2020, just over 68,000 people entered Sinai via Taba. In 2021, despite restrictions for most of the year, nearly 170,000 people crossed the border, the majority in the autumn months after daily limits were lifted in September. It also coincided with the lifting of the decade-long Sinai security warning.
“We credit social media for bringing Sinai back into the consciousness of Israelis,” Shiloh said. “If there hadn’t been coronavirus, [visitors] would have grown even more, because friends bring other friends.
“It Comes in Waves”
Tests that Israeli travelers to Sinai must now pass before entering and exiting Sinai increase the cost of travel, not to mention food and accommodation prices, which have risen dramatically to combat inflation and a year of loss of activity.
But few people complain about it.
“Sinai is still cheaper than any stay in Israel,” said Daniel Blum, a 28-year-old speech therapist who celebrated his birthday in Ras Shaitan in November.
“Now in Israel everything is so expensive, even the worst and crudest cabins in Israel cost NIS 800 a night,” said Noam Ben Moshe, a tour guide who has worked in Israel and the Sinai for decades.
One of the people who has always called Sinai a second home is Barak Gur, who celebrated his 50th birthday with a group of friends on Moon Island in November.
“They thought it would be the Riviera in the 1990s,” Gur said. “They talked about peace. There was a lot of hope that didn’t materialize. But when you see it with the perspective of years, it’s the reality here. The reality is that there are waves, maybe it’s geopolitics or whatever, there’s always something going on and everyone comes back to curl up in their shells.
He looked at the shimmering blue water, the red mountains of the desert across the sea that were just beginning to disappear in the morning mist.
“And then,” he added, “slowly, slowly, [tourists] to come back.”