Authorities fear EgyptAir bomb plot linked to the bombing of a Russian airliner in Sharm el-Sheikh last November, a spokeswoman for the tourism ministry says
An Egyptian move to shut down all of the country’s main tourist attractions next week – a decision that has partly closed the last of the main attractions for the next three months – is a fresh blow to the struggling sector.
The country had already endured two years of crises that had boosted travel warnings and cut the number of visitors that Egypt hoped to retain this year after the crash in November of a Russian airliner at Sharm el-Sheikh airport that killed all 224 people on board. The crash was later linked to a bomb.
Egypt has seen an increase in police and military presence, increasing fears of further threats to tourists following a flurry of attacks in recent weeks.
Last week, Egyptian authorities detained two Syrian men and said they had been identified as associates of the Islamic State group. Since then a video purportedly showing a group of militants praying and pledging allegiance to the group has gone viral on social media.
The men, named as Rawabet and Suleiman, were seized in dawn raids and taken to Cairo, al-Masry al-Youm reported. The men had been travelling with a fake Syrian passport. The day after their arrest, Egypt’s military said it had arrested a Syrian with a knife and a watch belonging to the interior ministry.
The decision to close off national landmarks, including the Red Sea coast where most of the national holidays fall in June, comes as Egyptian authorities cast a wide net over what they say are suspected Islamic State associates they say have been involved in recent bomb attacks.
Hundreds of militants are believed to be holed up in lawless areas of the Sinai Peninsula and other areas in the south of the country, under the protection of illegal armed groups operating in parts of the Suez Canal region.
On Saturday, a bomb exploded next to a police vehicle south of Cairo. The blast wounded four police officers, Egyptian security sources said.
Tourism accounts for 10% of Egypt’s economy, and the sector has been hard hit by political instability since the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011. But it is more vulnerable than ever in the wake of the downing of the Russian passenger plane and security concerns, tourism ministry officials have said.
Tourism minister Hisham Zaazou said he hoped the closure would only be temporary, not a permanent measure. Tourism to Egypt has suffered since a Russian airliner brought down last November, killing all 224 people aboard, killing most of them tourists.
“If anyone points a finger at this and casts the blame on tourism, it is absurd because the interior ministry promised the restoration of normalcy, security and safety as soon as possible,” Zaazou said.
“Unfortunately, the security situation has led many tour guides to stop accepting clients, to switch to other destinations.”
Zaazou, who has an experience overseeing the industry during the 1990s “Arab spring”, said tourism growth slowed to 2% last year from the 3% rate in 2012.
“This situation is not supported by any fundamentals,” he said. “The three months of summer is a key period for tourism.”
In addition to the Sharm el-Sheikh airport, which has been criticised for its passenger security, a major European tour operator told Reuters on Monday that Egypt has placed restrictions on both its destinations and transfers to tour sites as a result of the security threats.
A spokesman for Emirates, a major tour operator to Egypt, said its demand for flights from Egypt to other destinations outside the region has fallen “dramatically” as a result of worries about security.