CAIRO - Sharm el-Sheik has long been a bubble in Egypt, hosting beachgoers and international conventions when other parts of the country have been deeply embroiled in political upheaval.
Surrounded by mountains and deserts and heavily guarded, the resort town is usually viewed as impenetrable, despite militants battling security forces in other parts of the Sinai Peninsula.
The plane that crashed last Saturday after taking off from Sharm el-Sheik not only killed all 224 people on board, analysts say. It killed the resort city’s image as a safe haven.
Egyptian officials are steadfast, saying it could not have been an attack, and whatever caused the crash will be identified and fixed.
“It was an accident,” said Antiquities Minister Mamdouh Eldamaty on Thursday. “People shouldn’t be scared.”
Regardless of why the plane went down, argued Ziad Akl, a senior researcher for the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, it is going to be a blow to Egypt’s tourism industry and therefore, the country’s overall economy
“Tourism is going to be affected?” he said. “Of course it is going to be affected. Big time.”
Russians in Egypt
Militants allied with Islamic State claimed responsibility for the plane crash, saying it was revenge for Russian airstrikes in Syria.
And it’s a fact that almost all of the victims were Russian, said Akl, which makes the crash’s economic impact on Egypt so significant.
Russian tourists are the largest single group visiting Sharm el-Sheik. Egyptian tour guides often speak Russian. Restaurant menus are printed Russian, English and Arabic. And direct flights from Moscow to Sharm el-Sheik cost roughly the same as direct flights between Cairo and Sharm.
The tourism industry has been struggling to recover since the 2011 uprising, and catering to Russian tourists has been one of the most successful ventures in this uphill battle.
Tourism is one of the most important sectors of the Egyptian economy, being a major source of foreign income and employment. The Egyptian government was planning to launch an international advertising campaign to promote Egyptian tourism just this week.
In late September, Egyptian officials had predicted a large increase in tourism in 2016, from roughly $8 billion in income to as much as $10 billion. But now, recovery, according to Akl, will be nearly impossible.
“It’s not going be done through statements,” he said. “It’s not going to be done from officials going out and saying ‘Egypt is safe. Come have a vacation here.’”
Immediate Future of Tourism
Egyptian officials say Russian families won’t stop coming because of the crash, and government media repeatedly assert that the crash hasn’t changed the security situation in Egypt.
"The Association of Russian Tourist Companies said that according to the latest information the security situation is still the same as it was a few days ago,” read an announcer on Egypt’s state TV on Thursday night.
At the same time as that broadcast, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi stood at a podium next to British Prime Minister David Cameron while the PM was defending his choice to cancel flights to Sharm el-Sheik.
"We cannot be certain that the Russian airliner was brought down by a terrorist bomb, but it looks increasingly likely that was the case," said Cameron.
Even if the Russians aren’t following the United Kingdom’s lead and insisting that it's too early to conclude the cause of the crash, Akl says, logic demands that many Russian people will not return until they are confident the crash won’t be repeated.
“How popular Egypt is as a target for tourism is going to be reduced,” he said. “This is something we are going to have to face.”