Egypt is seeking to rebrand Sinai as a destination for international religious tourism despite tight security conditions in parts of the peninsula because of bloody incidents between the army and a branch of the Islamic State (ISIS).
The government is organising a conference in September to promote Sinai’s potential as an international religious tourism centre. It is hoping to capitalise on the significance the area holds for the three major monotheistic religions to attract millions of pilgrims and visitors every year.
“Sinai is a place where all religions meet,” said Gaber Taye, a senior official at the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which is sponsoring the new drive. “It is strongly relevant to Islam, Christianity and Judaism.”
For the past four years, Sinai, which has some of Egypt’s most renowned beaches and resorts, including Sharm el-Sheikh, has made headlines, not for its tourist charm, but for the blood spilled in it. ISIS militants carried out attacks that claimed the lives of hundreds of troops and policemen and turned some parts of northern Sinai into no-go areas for civilians.
ISIS has specifically targeted Christians, forcing hundreds of Christian families to flee to cities west of the Suez Canal.
“Followers of Islam, Christianity and Judaism would lose a lot by not visiting religious sites in Sinai,” Taye said. “We are speaking here of sites that witnessed the very beginning of the three religions.”
Among the sites the ministry will try to put on the international tourism map is Mount Sinai. Also known as Mount Horeb, it is mentioned many times in the Book of Exodus, the Bible and the Quran. Researchers are divided on the location of the real Mount Sinai and many say that the one in Sinai is where Moses is believed to have received the Ten Commandments.
Near Mount Sinai is Saint Catherine’s Monastery, said to be the oldest continually occupied monastery in the world.
The Companions Mosque opened in Sharm el-Sheikh in March. It cost $1.6 million to build and can accommodate up to 3,000 people.
Egypt’s tourism sector was dealt a painful blow in late 2015 when ISIS operatives allegedly planted a bomb on a Russian passenger plane, killing 224 people on board. This led to Russia and other countries suspending flights to Egyptian tourist destinations, depriving Egypt of millions of international tourists and billions of dollars in lost revenues.
International tourists have started returning to Egypt in numbers in recent months, with hotel occupancy in traditional destinations such as Sharm el-Sheikh, Hurghada and Luxor experiencing an increased number of visitors.
Tourism experts said, however, that Egypt has a long way to go before it returns to the pre-Russian plane bombing tourist flow rates.
“This is why we say putting Sinai’s religious sites on the international religious tourism map will carry a huge number of benefits,” said Ahmed Shoukry, the head of the International Tourism section at the Ministry of Tourism. “This can bring in a new type of tourists overlooked for years by entertainment and heritage tourism campaigns.”
Renewed international interest in Sinai, especially in untraditional tourist sites, could sabotage plans by the ISIS militants bent on establishing an Islamic caliphate in Sinai, retired police Major-General Farouk Megrahi said.
“The terrorists want to scare everybody out of Sinai so they can claim the land for themselves. They will hide like rats as tourism motivates development throughout the peninsula,” he said.
Hassan Abdel Zaher is a Cairo-based contributor to The Arab Weekly.
This article was first published in The Arab Weekly.