Going for a hike in the Sinai might not sound like the best way to spend a holiday, especially given Egypt’s ongoing terrorism problems on the peninsula. But one hiker has made it his mission to dispel security fears over the region by hiking through the mountains – and thereby showing tourists that it’s safe.
It all seemed so different in the aftermath of Egypt’s 2011 revolution, when the country that gave the world some of its greatest archeological treasures seemed to be at the entrance to a brave new era. Those dreams have been shattered by four years of political turmoil and the return of military rule. Since then, Egypt’s tourism has taken a nosedive, with revenues plunging a staggering 95% according to some estimates.
Sinai - a triangular peninsula that straddles two continents - hasn’t been spared. From southern coastal resorts like Sharm el-Sheikh to its biblical desert interior, the region has long been a major tourist centre. But its tourism industry took a hammering after a Russian airliner packed with holidaymakers crashed in October. Although Egypt insists there’s no evidence that the jet was downed by terrorists, Russia firmly believes it was bombed. Reports of increasing terrorist activity on the peninsula, including attacks carried out by the Islamic State group, have frightened away all but the most dedicated tourists.
"This is the biggest tourism crisis Sinai has ever faced"
Ben Hoffler was one of those who decided to stay. The 32-year-old hiker from London has just launched the ‘Sinai trail’, a 200km hike aimed at boosting tourism.
I began working in Cairo eight years ago, and a year later I took a trip to Sinai and I discovered Mount Sinai. I found it hard to forget what I saw and it kept pulling me back. Eventually I decided to move there permanently and made a guidebook for the region. I’ve been there ever since.Bedouin guides load camels in Ras el Abrag, near Nuweibaa, December 2014.
After starting a blog about life in the mountains of Sinai, I began working on an initiative called ‘Sinai is Safe’ in October 2014. By getting people hiking in the mountains it aims to challenge negative perceptions of the region as a place of danger, whilst showcasing Egypt's beautiful wilderness to the world and reviving the tourism that's so important to local Bedouin communities. In the last few days, we’ve launched the ‘Sinai trail’, Egypt’s first long-distance hiking trail."Hiking and adventure tourism is a great way to help preserve traditional Bedouin culture"
Many Bedouin communities were very dependent on tourism. Most of the tourism groups that promoted camel and jeep safaris have gone. Now Bedouins are going through tough times. They’ve had to sell camels and revive old ways of living on the land to make ends meet. Some children don’t go to school. They work instead to bring money to their families. This is the biggest tourism crisis that Sinai has ever faced. I know lots of people who won’t visit Sinai because they’re afraid of what will happen. The advice that governments give them also influences them. Most countries tell them not to go.Ein Hudera oasis, November 2014.
Whilst some parts clearly are dangerous, these are very small areas, in the northeast next to Gaza, for example. But the interior Bedouin parts of south Sinai are safe. Unlike in other parts of Egypt, attacks have never happened to tourists in areas like St. Catherine [Editor’s note: A town located near Mount Sinai, where God is said to have spoken to the biblical Moses]. They’re world class sites that deserve as much attention as countries like Jordan, Morocco or Oman that are much better known for outdoor tourism. Hiking and adventure tourism is also a fantastic way of helping preserve traditional Bedouin knowledge and culture. Big business tourism – which is most of Sinai’s tourism - is not the best way to do that.
"I instantly fell in love with the place. It's completely cut off from the world"
Whilst most tourists have deserted the peninsula, not everyone has stayed away. Virginie Foucard, from Paris, spent four weeks in Egypt, including one week in Sinai. She says that although it felt like paradise, the thought that terrorists could carry out attacks was always in the back of her mind.
At first I had planned to go to Cairo for three weeks. Then eventually I got to meet someone who lived in Sinai, so I decided to spend an extra week in Egypt, in Sinai. I stayed in a town called Nuweibaa. I got there by taking a plane to Sharm el-Sheikh, and then shared a taxi with some other people north for two hours. We had to pass through four security checkpoints on the way. Due to security fears, there are certain roads that foreigners aren’t allowed to travel on even if they’re in buses, so getting there by plane was my best option.The faraway highlands of Jabal Katherina, seen from Jabal Mutamir, February 2015."The threat of terrorism was in the back of my mind"
I instantly fell in love with the place. It feels timeless. You live under the sun alongside the Bedouins. I slept in the same camps as them. It’s completely cut off from the world. They say that the ground belongs to the Bedouins. Even Egyptian soldiers appear to have less authority in the region than them. Before going and while I was there, the threat of terrorism was in the back of my mind. My parents were worried. Ironically, I told them not to worry, that I wasn’t going to Sinai. That’s exactly where I ended up.