The day after Israel returned to Egypt the last of the Sinai Peninsula in April, 1982, ending 15 years of occupation, Egyptian tourist agent Mahmoud Maati set up shop here on the Gulf of Aqaba.
"I expected a lot of traffic," Maati, a former Egyptian military officer, said the other day. He foresaw a steady flow of American and European tourists crossing the newly opened border with Israel. And he expected that Israelis who had grown attached to the area's rugged beauty and unspoiled beaches would continue their love affair with the Sinai.
Business was never as brisk as Maati had hoped, but during the first couple of years it wasn't bad. Eventually he employed 34 people and had a fleet of 14 small tour buses.
Now, however, the staff and the buses are mostly idle, victims of a 90% decline in Israeli travel to Egypt and a sharp decline in Western tourism through Israel as well.
Fear of Attack
As elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean region, the reduced tourism is due in part to fear of terrorist attack. But here an important factor is a virtual boycott by many Israelis because of what they see as Egypt's tolerance for, if not outright encouragement of, anti-Israeli sentiments.
The turning point came last Oct. 5, when an Egyptian policeman fired into a crowd of Israelis, killing seven of them, at a popular camping spot called Ras Bourka a few miles north of here. An Egyptian court found the man guilty and sentenced him to life in prison, and he reportedly hanged himself in his cell.
In Cairo, two Israelis have been killed in the last eight months, and the February rebellion of Egyptian security police has further unsettled potential travelers. But it is the Ras Bourka incident--four of the victims were children--that has left the deepest scars.
From an average of about 3,000 Israeli tourists a month in 1983 and 1984, and 2,200 as recently as last September, the month before the Ras Bourka incident, the number fell to 150 in February, the latest month for which figures are available. On a recent weekend visit to Nuweiba, a reporter saw only one other car with an Israeli license plate.
In March, in an effort to reverse the trend, Maati started offering free bus transportation from the border, every Saturday, to any Israeli who wanted to visit Nuweiba. Hassan Issa, the Egyptian consul in Eilat, 40 miles north, helped promote the idea. But only 23 individuals showed up the first weekend, and the program has been on hold ever since.
Some Israelis were genuinely frightened by the shooting at Ras Bourka and the other incidents. But perhaps even more Israelis see the attacks and, in their view, Egypt's refusal to give a full public accounting of them as evidence of bad will.
"Recent events bear out the grave misgivings many of us have about the peace treaty with Egypt, for which Israel paid such a steep price," Stanley Levin of Petah Tikva said last month in a letter to the Jerusalem Post.
Another letter writer, Jacob Rosin of Netanya, said after the series of shootings: "Enough! The least we can do is to suspend tourism to Egypt. Israelis shouldn't be used as cannon fodder for the Chimera of normalization."
Letter From Parents
Linda Bender, an Israeli travel agent in Eilat, said a local newspaper recently published a letter from the parents of one of the children killed at Ras Bourka urging other Israelis to stay out of the Sinai.
Maati said the Israeli attitude has caused other foreign tourism through Eilat to decline as well.
"Eighty percent of our traffic used to be from Eilat," he said. "Well, now Eilat is full, and look around," and he gestured toward an almost empty beach.
Maati said that up to 10% of foreign tourists to Eilat used to make a side trip to the Sinai, but "now it's 1%."
Issa, the Egyptian consul, rejected charges that his country is just as happy to have the Sinai back without Israeli tourists in it.
"Of course I want them," he said of the Israelis. "I want them for the political aspects of the situation. . . . I want them for the whole atmosphere between the two countries. It has nothing to do with just material gains from tourism, because these are almost non-existent with Israelis. You know, they go and sit on the beach and we don't take anything out of them. But just the fact that they are crossing the borders and they are going--this creates a certain atmosphere."
Issa charged that Israeli opponents of the peace with Egypt are overemphasizing the Ras Bourka incident for political reasons. "Nobody says don't go to Tel Aviv because a 14-year-old boy killed his mother and father and two sisters there," he said, referring to a recent incident.
Both Issa and Maati confirmed that the nature of tourism in the Sinai is changing, turning the area into an Arab vacation spot.
New Ferry Service
About a year ago a new ferry service opened between Nuweiba and the Jordanian port of Aqaba, across the gulf. Later this month a new highway across the northern Sinai is expected to cut at least two hours off the driving time to Cairo, increasing domestic tourism to this part of the peninsula. A new travel tax, imposed by Cairo to cut down on foreign travel and strengthen foreign currency reserves, is also expected to divert Egyptian tourists to the Sinai.
Maati conceded that his government has been shortsighted in the way it has dealt with the Sinai. The peninsula offers spectacular natural beauty and bargain-basement prices, but it lacks the kind of services that many Western vacationers demand.
Restaurants are few and the food unexceptional. Accommodations are inexpensive but Spartan. For example, it is rumored that there is hot water in the rooms at the Holiday Village here, but a reporter found none. At times, he found no running water at all.
The government discourages the small, independent businessmen who might otherwise come here and open the kinds of restaurants and shops that would encourage more tourism, Maati said.
Travel Agents Meet
Last month, Israeli and Egyptian travel agents met and decided on a number of steps to increase tourism, including creation of a joint fund to publicize combined Egyptian-Israeli package tours of Europe and the United States.
Meanwhile, Maati said, he will stick it out here even though he is losing money. He has too much invested to leave, he said. Besides, he is sure that better days are ahead.
"I believe the day will come, because the Israelis do like Sinai very much," he said.