SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt – The southern Sinai city of Sharm el-Sheikh did not start off to be a glitzy resort town.
In fact, its origins were fairly humble.
Originally settled by Bedouin nomads, it was a sleepy little fishing town.
But when Israel took occupation of Sharm in 1967, Jewish investors decided to transform this idyllic little village into a high-end tourist destination.
The vacation resort town, with its pristine turquoise waters and world-class diving was a favorite holiday getaway for Israelis of all stripes, and when Sharm was returned to Egypt in 1982, the Egyptian government decided to follow the Israeli lead and invest in making it a five-star destination for well-heeled Europeans, constructing huge hotels, restaurants, casinos, nightclubs and shopping arcades.
Egypt launched a massive international publicity campaign promoting Sharm as the jewel in the Red Sea Riviera necklace of Sinai resorts, and the government’s if-you-build-it-they-will-come philosophy soon paid off with a surge of tourists, especially from the United Kingdom and Germany, and later Russia and the Ukraine.
There is no denying the Sharm el-Sheikh had appeal.
It offered year-round tropical luxury, natural desert beauty, calm sea waters, premier shopping, cosmopolitan dining and lively nightlife entertainment at Third World prices and was less than a half-day’s travel away from most European capitals.
Moreover, the incomparable Egyptian hospitality and Bedouin warmth and openness gave the city a uniquely cordial character, where Russian lasses decked out in ultra-mini-skirts and halter tops seemed strangely congruent beside local women covered in head-to-toe black burqas.
Little wonder Sharm soon gained the nickname of the City of Peace.
But that peace was shattered when fundamental terrorist groups decided to import their violence to the serene shores of Sharm and begin attacking civilians.
In 2005, Islamic extremists targeted several Sharm hotels and restaurants, killing more than 80 people, and the City of Peace was scarred by the stain of senseless brutality.
The Egyptian government has strived hard to erase the blemish of the 2005 murders and subsequent acts of terrorism by extremist organizations, doubling down on security measures and working hard to ensure the safety of its guests, but when a Russian Metrojet passenger plane was downed in late October of last year, killing all 224 people aboard, Sharm got an unfair rap as an unsafe tourist destination.
Britain and Russia cancelled all their regular charters and the city’s international airport, which had been receiving more than 150 flights a day, saw its incoming traffic trickle down to just 10 flights a day.
The city’s economy, which is dependent on tourism for a full 80 percent of its revenues, was devastated, and even the newly opened 800-room, luxurious, all-inclusive Rixos Seagate Sharm resort hotel was registering a pitiful 15-room occupancy in late January of this year.
Security in Sharm is extensive, especially at the airport, where the Russians claim the bomb that caused the Metrojet tragedy was placed on the plane.
There is a hauntingly ghostliness to the city, and hotel and restaurant personnel try desperately to be welcoming and hospitable despite the fact that their livelihoods are at stake if the city does not soon regain its popularity as an international tourist haven.
The shootings in 2005 and the crashing of the Russian plane last October are isolated incidences, and, sadly, we have all witnessed how indiscriminate terrorist groups are in their choice of venues for their despicable acts.
No place is completely safe and secure against terrorism, not Sharm and not Europe and not the United States and not even, unfortunately, Mexico.
Sharm el-Sheikh is still a peaceful mecca with welcoming people, beautiful beaches, incredibly inviting storefronts and unspoiled coral reefs.
And it is still worthy of the original moniker, City of Peace.
Visit the Egyptian Tourist Authority website at http://en.egypt.travel.com.
Where to stay: The two lavish Rixos hotels, run by a Turkish travel chain, offer all-inclusive packages tailored to a discerning European and Middle Eastern public. The service is unsurpassed and the food and accommodations are as good as it gets in terms of luxury and quality. Both are located at Nabq Bay, right next to one another (http://sharmelsheikh.rixos.com).
Not quite as upscale as the Rixos but equally welcoming and conveniently located adjacent to Sharm’s Soho shopping mall (with great knockoffs and a real English pub), the 400-room, all-inclusive Savoy resort has great service and some of the best dining in the city. Be sure to try the Caligula Hot Rock restaurant and Seafood Island. Located at Soho Square (www.savoy-sharm.com).