Economy & Trade, Environment, Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

EGYPT: Shark Attacks Bite Tourism

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa Al-Omrani

CAIRO, Jan 6 2011 (IPS) - The beaches of Egypt’s Red Sea resort city of Sharm al-Sheikh are tentatively back to normal after having recently been the site of five separate shark attacks, one of which proved fatal. While the phenomenon’s precise cause remains undetermined, local experts fear that the spate of attacks could have dire consequences for Egypt’s vital tourism industry – especially in the event of another incident.

“We’ve already lost considerable business,” one hotel owner in Sharm told IPS on condition of anonymity. “Several tour groups cancelled their reservations in the immediate wake of the attacks.”

In the last days of November, four foreign tourists – three Russians and one Ukrainian – were attacked while swimming relatively close to the shore by what was believed to be a single shark. One lost a leg; another, a hand.

Authorities reacted immediately, closing off to the public all beaches in the area. The Egyptian Environment Ministry, meanwhile, hastened to announce that two sharks had been killed – an oceanic white-tip and a mako shark – which, the ministry claimed, were responsible for the attacks.

Deeming the shores safe once again, local beaches were reopened to vacationers.

The decision to reopen the beaches proved fatally premature. On Dec. 5, an elderly German tourist was mauled to death by a shark a mere 20 metres from shore in Sharm’s popular Naama Bay.

Taking no more chances, authorities re-closed the beaches until further notice.

While shark attacks in the area are rare, they are not unheard of. Over the past 20 years, 14 shark attacks have been recorded in Egypt, three of them lethal. The last attack occurred in the southern resort town of Marsa Aalem, where a French tourist was killed in 2009.

Tourism represents one of Egypt’s chief foreign currency earners. Overall revenue from the vital sector – of which resort tourism in and around Sharm accounts for a healthy portion – is expected to reach some 13 billion dollars this year alone, according to figures from the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism.

In an effort to limit the potential fallout from decreased tourism, the government quickly drew up a committee of marine experts, both local and foreign, to investigate the extraordinary rash of attacks.

“We’re bringing in marine biologists from abroad to assess the situation and [determine] why there was this change in biological nature,” Tourism Minister Zuhair Garana declared.

“This is unnatural. It has never happened before,” he added.

Experts offered a host of possible explanations for the unprecedented number of attacks, ranging from illegal feeding of sharks to environmental factors related to climate change. Some postulated that sharks had been drawn to the area after sheep carcasses were dumped overboard by a passing ship; others suggested that over-fishing in the Red Sea may have driven some species of shark closer to shore.

At a press conference following the initial attacks, South Sinai Governor Abdel Fadil Shousha sparked controversy when he suggested that Israel may have had a hand in the affair. Days later, he denied making the statement.

The one point on which all the experts agree, however, is that the spate of bloody assaults represents nothing less than an aberration.

“When you have these many shark attacks in such a short period of time, there must have been something to incite it,” George Burgess, an American shark expert currently in Sharm to study the attacks was quoted as saying on Dec. 10.

“It does not conform to normal shark behaviour in the least bit,” he added.

Local observers were no less baffled by the unusual behaviour displayed in the attacks.

“The sharks in question were deep-sea sharks, not indigenous to the Red Sea,” Ali Abu Qamar, owner of a fishing boat in the southern seaside town of Hurghada, told IPS.

“While these kinds of shark have been known to follow boats into the Red Sea, they never attack people unless they feel threatened.”

On Dec. 11, the committee of experts presented its findings, which did not include a definitive explanation for the attacks.

The committee nevertheless recommended that beaches be re-opened, albeit with a handful of conditions including the erection of 6-metre-high watchtowers at regular intervals manned by trained lifeguards, the restriction of swimming to designated areas, and a total ban on recreational shark feeding.

At a meeting with officials one week later, Shousha declared that the local tourism industry had emerged from the crisis unscathed.

“Tourism in South Sinai has absolutely not been affected,” he said, declaring that Sharm’s tourist numbers had actually risen due to the influx of vacationers during the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Many observers, however, dispute the governor’s rosy appraisal.

“Egypt’s December tourism revenue will likely be cut in half,” Hamdi Abdelazim, economy expert and former president of the Cairo-based Sadat Academy for Administrative Sciences, told IPS. “It’s only natural that tourism, especially resort tourism, would be impacted following a string of shark attacks.”

“If the government implements the committee’s safety recommendations, the impact will quickly subside,” he added. “But if there’s another attack, the economic repercussions will be grave.”

The beaches around Sharm have largely returned to normal, while the committee’s recommendations are reportedly being carried out. Nevertheless, locals are keeping their fingers crossed.

“We’re praying it doesn’t happen again,” said the hotel owner in Sharm. “Billions of dollars have been invested in Red Sea tourism, both in the resort and the diving sectors. If there’s another incident, the effect will be devastating.”

“If there is a human agency behind the recent attacks,” he added, “it would be tantamount to a declaration of war.”

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