Mussa al-Nahas sat outside his perfume and spice shop overlooking the Red Sea, beaming at the sight of Russian tourists, who begin returning to Sharm el-Sheikh six years after a terrorist attack.
“Today is much, much better than three or four months ago because the Russians are back,” he told AFP.
“The return of Russian flights has prompted other countries to open up as well,” he added.
Nahas, 42, has spent half his life in the idyllic, sunny Red Sea resort, which was hit hard economically after a Metrojet plane crashed in 2015 that killed 224 mostly Russian passengers. .
The attack was claimed by the jihadist group Islamic State, present in the troubled region of North Sinai.
Following the crash, Russia instituted a blanket ban on all flights to the Red Sea from 2015, and even to Cairo for a few weeks.
The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 was a double whammy driving out the remaining tourists – the country’s lifeline.
Tourism accounts for around 10 percent of Egypt’s GDP where a third of the 100 million people live below the poverty line.
“We used to say that Sharm el-Sheikh had become a ghost town,” Nahas said.
But in August, Sharm’s plight – as it is affectionately known – began to improve when the first plane from Moscow landed at the local airport.
After years of diplomacy, the long-standing ban was finally lifted.
– “As things were” –
Tour guide Abdelqader Abdel-Rahman, 30, who was preparing to take a group of Hungarian adventurers on a desert safari by quad bike, was delighted to see tourists flocking to the city.
“Before 2015, there were around 120-150 weekly flights from Russia … We hope things will get back to where they were,” he told AFP.
Currently, around 20 flights from Russia land in Sharm every week.
Capitalizing on the appetite for tourism after months of global blockage, Egypt’s tourism ministry has removed visa fees for 28 countries, many of them in Eastern Europe.
In April, the country alone welcomed half a million tourists, twice as many as in January, according to official figures.
“Since the Russian planes started to return, the city started to move. A lot of people have gone back to their old jobs and reopened their bazaars and restaurants,” Abdel-Rahman said.
Tourists are also happy to be back in the largest Arab country with plenty to explore, from the pyramids in the north to the beauty of the corals of the Red Sea.
Sipping tea in a Bedouin tent in the desert before attacking the dunes, Hungarian Roland Juni, 41, said he last visited a decade ago.
“I don’t feel too much of a difference. I loved him 10 years ago and I love him now,” he said.
“Now I see a lot, a lot of Russians here. More than before,” he added.
In 2019, before the onslaught of the pandemic, Egyptian tourism revenues reached $ 13 billion. But they fell to $ 4 billion last year, a huge shock to some two million workers in the industry.
– ‘We missed it a lot’ –
Russian tourists have also lined up for Sharm’s marine activities, snorkeling and jet ski diving.
Standing on the deck of a boat, Alexei Volnyago, 35, boasts: “We don’t have seas like this in Russia … It’s spectacular here.”
“We haven’t been to Sharm for five years … we missed it very much.”
In a large shopping mall, another Russian tourist named Alexei was busy picking juicy, ripe mangoes – a delicacy to be enjoyed in hot Egyptian climates.
“The prices are pretty good … and the people are nice,” he told AFP as he strolled down the aisles.
Trader Nahas recalled his Russian doctor friend who for 11 years spent six months a year in Sharm. “We called him Alexei the Sharmawi,” Nahas said.
“As soon as the flights resumed in the air, he also came back.”