Once a place of battles, the Red Sea coast is now a playground for tourists

CHICH EGYPTIAN OASIS

November 22, 1992|By Katherine Roth | Katherine Roth,Contributing Writer

SHARM EL SHEIKH, EGYPT — Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt--Barely 10 years after bitterly disputed Sinai was returned to Egypt in exchange for the present cool peace with Israel, the Red Sea coast, still heavily guarded by Egyptian and multinational forces, has quietly become one of the world's fastest growing resorts.

The posh boardwalks of Naama Bay and the flashing neon lights of the Cactus Disco (bragging the largest dance floor in Egypt) seem strangely incongruous with the rugged desolation of the ++ Sinai mountains that dominate the desert landscape and the occasional signs warning foreigners not to stray from the main roads.

Yet here on the southern tip of Sinai, where the Gulf of Aqaba and the Gulf of Suez merge with the Red Sea, the soft, white domes of Mediterranean-style resorts are popping up like mushrooms out of the coastal desert wilderness.

This is a coast lined with coral of all shades resembling huge fans or small forests, where bright yellow clown fish play among the purple-tipped anemone.

A blue spotted ray glides along the ocean bottom toward a

convention of eels sticking out of the sand like a field of wild grass. A giant sea turtle paddles gracefully into the distance.

In the evening, a small group of divers follow the slow gyrations of an octopus as it slithers around the reef, its color and texture changing from rough to smooth, red to purple to brown.

These are reefs bejeweled with hundreds of varieties of tropical fish, many of which are found only in the Red Sea. The remarkable underwater scenery and world-class beach resort have only recently gained fame in Europe, and in America are known only to avid divers.

Word is spreading fast, though, and already some 100,000 tourists a year flock to the chic little oasis on the edge of one of the world's harshest deserts, whose Bedouin inhabitants have witnessed three wars in the last 40 years.

"People thought I was crazy when I proposed a five-star resort here, but I knew it would be a hit. This is the closest destination to Europe with sunshine guaranteed all year around, and the underwater landscape is unparalleled," said Claude Chenais, general manager of the two Hilton hotels here. Constructed only five years ago, the Fayrouz Hilton was one of the first big resort hotels in Naama Bay.

At first wary of encouraging tourism in what is still considered a security zone, even Egyptian government officials seem upbeat about the new developments in Sharm el Sheikh.

"Sure, it's a security zone, but nobody thinks of it that way any more. It's Egypt's top tourist attraction after the pyramids and the other pharaonic monuments, and it's the most rapidly growing tourism zone in the region," said Samir Sadek, chief adviser of the newly created Tourism Development Unit, an advisory branch of the Ministry of Tourism.

Considering the harsh environment, the tourism to Sharm el Sheikh is as surprising as it is successful. Because the area has no natural sources of drinking water, it was considered uninhabitable until 1967, when the Israelis set up a small military base on the site. Until 10 years ago sands swept along a pristine coastline here, and the coral reefs, now considered among the most remarkable in the world, were virtually unknown.

Times have changed

Things have changed completely since then. Now plenty of drinking water is piped in from the Nile, and desalination and power plants are beginning to appear. Jet-setting Europeans, demanding the luxuries of home like cable television and gourmet dining, pour into the exclusive resort area to snorkel and dive among the stunning array of brilliant tropical fish and breathtaking underwater landscapes.

Whereas four years ago a small, noisy plane made two charter flights a week from Cairo to Sharm el Sheikh, some of the world's most modern planes now fly in direct from Zurich, Munich, Vienna, Rome and other major European hubs.

There are 10 major hotels here, and about 10 more under construction. Five more dive centers are planned for Sharm el Sheikh, and every year more hotels and dive centers spring up. There are already nearly 4,000 rooms in Sharm, up from 740 in 1988, and occupancy at most of the hotels ranges from 70 percent in the off-season to overbooking.

"The transformation is nothing short of amazing," said Rolf Schmidt, manager of Sinai Divers, one of the most popular dive clubs here. Mr. Schmidt, a German who has lived here longer than just about anyone else in the community, moved to Sinai in 1973. At that time fewer than 900 people, nearly all of whom worked for the Israeli army, lived in Sharm el Sheikh. Now there are about 4,000 inhabitants here.

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