Sharm el Sheikh may remain off-sale in the UK, but there are plenty of other options for sunseekers around the rest of the Red Sea. Rob Gill reports.
Most of the talk about the Red Sea in the past couple of years has revolved around the advice by the Foreign Office not to use Sharm el Sheikh airport due to security concerns.
Despite continued appeals from the Egyptian authorities and organisations such as World Travel & Tourism Council and World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), the FCO continues to advise “against all but essential travel by air” to Sharm.
This advice has been in place since November 2015 in the aftermath of the suspected bombing of a Russian charter flight from Sharm.
Tourism minister Yehia Rashed insisted that Sharm’s airport was now equipped with “state of the art” security technology when he visited WTM London in November.
The resort was boosted last month when four Nordic countries – Denmark, Finland, Sweden and Norway – changed their advice against flying to Sharm. Flights from Germany, Italy and Belgium to Sharm resumed late last year.
But the continued FCO advice against using Sharm airport has forced major operators such as Thomas Cook and Thomson to reluctantly cancel all UK flights to the resort for summer 2017.
“It is a fantastic destination and as soon as the advice changes and we can build it into our holiday programme, we look forward to flying customers from the UK to Sharm again,” says Chris Mottershead, Thomas Cook’s UK and
Ireland managing director. Some specialist operators to the Red Sea are optimistic that the FCO will soon change its advice on Sharm’s airport – Discover Egypt has even decided to include Sharm as a twin-centre option in its new brochure in anticipation that Britons will soon be able to fly to the resort.
In the meantime, the Egyptian resort of Hurghada seems to have been the main beneficiary of Sharm being off-sale in the UK. Thomas Cook offers flights to the resort from five UK airports, while Thomson also flies from both Gatwick and Manchester to Hurghada, as well as offering flights from Gatwick to Marsa Alam.
Andrew Grant, managing director of Red Sea Holidays, says: “Holidays for Hurghada, particularly the Makadi Bay area, are showing healthy increases in passenger numbers – the market is reporting an increase of 35%.
“Price has certainly been a contributor to the surge in sales, as popular resorts in Spain are demanding significant increases in prices owing to the weakness of the pound versus the euro, as well as overall hotel prices increasing substantially year-on-year.”
Thomas Cook also highlighted increased sales to Hurghada when it gave an update on its overall trading last month.
Jerome Downer, North Africa sales manager at Cyplon Holidays, agrees that prices are helping to generate more interest in the Red Sea resorts, and not just for Hurghada.
“The Hurghada price points are generating interest,” he says. “We are seeing more clients that would normally visit Sharm trying Hurghada and they’re seeking a value-formoney sun holiday.
“Currently we are seeing more movement from the Nile cruise and Red Sea twin-centre holidays, as well as Israel and Jordan.”
Downer adds there has also been an increase in bookings for the Jordanian Red Sea resort of Aqaba.
Discover Egypt is concentrating on promoting its 14-day twin-centre holidays, which combine a week on a Nile cruise followed by a stay at one of Egypt’s Red Sea resorts.
Managing director Philip Breckner says: “The top-selling Red Sea resort combined with our Nile cruise is Hurghada, followed by El Gouna, Somabay and then Marsa Alam.
“We packaged these twin-centre holidays as over the years we’ve seen an interest from travel agents and clients to combine a week learning about Egypt’s amazing temples and tombs with flopping on a pristine beach.
“From the travel agents’ point of view these twin-centre holidays offer clients superb value for money as the second week is only an additional £299pp.”
Operators say that the type of clients travelling to the Red Sea resorts continue to be primarily couples and adult holidaymakers.
Although Red Sea Holidays’ Andrew Grant adds: “Post-Christmas we have seen the number of family bookings increase considerably – in part driven by the range of family products now available – dedicated aqua parks and more tailored offerings for the family market, such as food and entertainment choices aligned to family needs.”
Discover Egypt’s Philip Breckner adds: “With families it tends to be older children – teenagers and those in their 20s. We do get three generations travelling together, often it is the grandparents treating the family to the trip – sometimes by way of celebrating a special anniversary.”
One thing to consider however is that the good value that Egypt currently offers for package holidays may be tempered partially by the Egyptian government’s decision to more than double the price of a single-entry visa from the current rate of $25 to $60 on July 1.
One of the biggest developments in the Red Sea region is the forthcoming opening of a new airport for the Israeli resort of Eilat, while the country’s government has also started an incentive scheme to encourage the development of new hotels in the resort.
Sharon Bershadsky, director of the UK and Ireland for the Israel Government Tourist Office, says: “Eilat is starting to see a resurgence in Red Sea holidays from the UK and across Europe. Monarch Airlines is the first carrier to offer direct flights to Eilat from the UK, completing two successful seasons between Luton and Ovda airport.
“Later this year, we will celebrate the opening of Ramon airport, Eilat’s new airport, which will allow even greater connectivity and hopefully encourage more operators to service the destination from the UK and Ireland.”
Rebecca Stoddard, Monarch’s product and commercial manager, says that “fantastic prices” for package holidays are driving demand for Eilat.
“We are looking to grow the number of hotels we currently have on offer for next year in line with this increase in demand,” she adds.
“Our clients for Eilat are mostly couples. We do have a number of families travelling to Eilat, however the family market is something that we would like to see grow.”
Monarch looks certain to face more competition in Eilat when the new airport opens with Israeli officials saying that they want 70 airlines to use Ramon airport – easyJet is reported to be one of the carriers looking at using the new facility.
These developments – alongside any potential change in FCO advice covering Sharm airport – should make the Red Sea an interesting region to watch in the next year or two, particularly as its price points may offer a tempting alternative to the increasingly expensive western Mediterranean.
Bargain breaks are available in a number of Red Sea resorts. Here are three examples:
Seven nights’ all-inclusive at the Sonesta Pharaoh Beach Resort in Hurghada is priced from £459pp including easyJet flights and transfers.
Seven nights’ room-only at the Nova Like Hotel in Eilat is priced from £435pp including flights from Luton and transfers.
A seven-night Nile cruise extension in a Red Sea resort (El Gouna, Hurghada, Somabay or Marsa Alam) starts at £299pp including transfers. A seven-night Nile cruise from Luxor to Aswan is priced at £899pp including flights, transfers, meals and excursions.