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Riddle of Britain's ban on Sharm El-Sheikh

Posted 12 June 2018 · Add Comment

European tourists have returned to Egypt’s Sharm El-Sheikh, bringing much-needed revenue to the city’s population. Yet UK airlines are still barred from flying there. Alan Dron tries to find out why

Mystery surrounds the continued refusal of the UK Government to allow the country’s airlines to fly into Sharm El-Sheikh, more than two years after they imposed a ban following the destruction of a Russian airliner near the Red Sea resort.
The Metrojet Airbus A321 crashed shortly after take-off from Sharm El-Sheikh, killing all 224 passengers and crew.
The aircraft’s destruction is widely believed to have been caused by an explosive device planted while the aircraft was on the ground, although the sabotage theory has never been officially confirmed.
The incident led to the immediate suspension of flights to Red Sea airports by many European governments. However, while most countries – including Russia – have restored all services to Egypt, the UK has yet to allow the resumption of flights to Sharm El-Sheikh.
British tourists were the largest single national group to fly into Sharm El-Sheikh, particularly in the winter season, and their absence has left many hotels, dive schools and shops near-deserted.
Egyptian officials have become increasingly frustrated at the refusal to permit resumption of services. At last November’s World Travel Market (WTM) – the world’s largest tourism exhibition – in London, Egypt’s ambassador to the UK, Nasser Kamel, said his country had spent $30 to $50 million on upgrading the airport.
Speaking at a WTM press conference, reported in the travel industry publication Travel Weekly, he added: “As far as the Egyptian Government is concerned, we have implemented a joint action project and upgraded security at Sharm el-Sheikh [airport].
“The project has been so successful that the whole world, except Britain, has resumed flights.”
Travel Weekly reported that, although UK visitor numbers to Egypt as a whole rose slightly in 2017 (230,000 visited in the first nine months against 170,000 in 2016), numbers were still well below the peak of more than one million in 2009-10 and 750,000 as recently as 2014.
By contrast, Germany, which initially cancelled flights to Sharm El-Sheikh but then restored them, sent more than 800,000 tourists to Egypt in the year up to the end of September 2017.
The ban has also affected some UK airlines, most notably veteran tourist carrier Monarch Airlines, which collapsed in autumn 2017 after Egypt and Tunisia – two of its most popular destinations – were hit by terrorist attacks that prompted the UK Government to officially advise its citizens against going to either country.
Tunisia has now been removed from the blacklist – another factor that irritates Egypt.
The matter has been raised several times in the UK Parliament. One member of the ruling Conservative Party, Jonathan Lord, noted in December 2017 that, following an inspection from the UK’s Department for Transport, a 25-point plan was drawn up and implemented to ensure the safety of the airport.
“I understand that security experts in the UK and Egypt now agree that Sharm El-Sheikh has one of the world’s most secure airports. Egypt has spent more than £20 million on improving security at the airport, replaced outdated equipment, trained 7,000 staff using the UK aviation security firm, Restrata, run rigorous background checks on current staff, laid off more than 40% of the original staff and introduced a new biometric ID system for all airport employees.”
Stephen Timms, a member of the opposition Labour Party, added that the refusal to allow UK airlines back to Sharm El-Sheikh “is characterised by many in Egypt as the UK giving in to terrorism. It is hard to understand why the ban is being kept.”
Replying, Transport Minister John Hays said: “It has been acknowledged that the level of security at the airport has improved from where it was before.”
However, he added, there was “a wider range of security-related reasons” involved that he could not talk about publicly. This is thought to be a reference to terrorist activity further north in the Sinai Peninsula.
In a statement, the UK Department for Transport said: “We continue to work closely with the Egyptian authorities on security arrangements at the airport. We keep aviation security under constant review and will resume flights as soon as we can.”
 

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