TABA BORDER CROSSING, EGYPT // It is 5am and half a dozen Bedouin drivers linger at the taxi stand near the Egyptian side of the Taba border crossing, smoking cigarettes and preparing sweet tea on a gas burner. They are waiting for the arrival of tourists from Israel, many of whom have taken overnight buses. But the crossing, which once funnelled masses of Israelis into the Sinai Peninsula, is relatively quiet, with only a few dozen people queuing inside the terminal.
Israelis once crossed by the thousands, renting simple khoshas (small huts) on the beach in the many camps scattered along the 50km stretch of coast between Taba and Nuweiba in north-eastern Sinai. The camps lining that section of coast are primarily owned and operated by nomadic Sinai Bedouins who, like most people in the area, rely on tourism for survival. In recent years, however, things have changed.
"No people; no business here; no money," said Ali Ahmed, one of the minibus drivers who was waiting to take passengers along the Gulf of Aqaba. According to the Israeli Airports Authority - the body responsible for the country's international land crossings - only 66,000 Israelis passed through Taba in the first six months of this year. That is about half as many as in the same period of 2008. The number for all of 2004 was 400,000. Unless there is a significant spike in the second half of this year, tourist numbers from Israel will be at a 10-year low.
Israelis stopped coming after three bombs exploded at popular tourist sites, including the Hilton Hotel, in 2004, leaving 34 people dead. Although no one claimed responsibility for the attacks, three men said to belong to the Sinai group Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad, were sentenced to death in 2006. Because Israelis were said to be the target of the attacks, thousands fled the peninsula, many vowing never to return. Over the next two years several more blasts against tourists in Cairo and elsewhere in Sinai pushed the death toll to 140.
Despite a three-decade-old treaty between Israel and Egypt, there are still tensions between people, with many Egyptians not accepting normalised relations and protesting economic co-operation. Though it has been three years since the last bombing in Sinai, one Israeli tourist was stabbed in a camp earlier this year. The Israeli Counter Terrorism Bureau continues to encourage nationals not to visit Egypt, warning of kidnappings in the region.
Israelis tend to visit Sinai during major Jewish holidays, but this year the Israeli government has again warned nationals not to travel to Egypt during popular holiday periods. "We are waiting," said Mohammed Abu Rabie al Swerky, the manager of Castle Beach Resort at Ras al Shitan, the site of one of the 2004 blasts. An Egyptian army tank and several soldiers keep watch outside the camp. Most of the signs in Mr al Swerky's office are in Hebrew and English, and like many of the Bedouin working in this area, Mr al Swerky says he speaks Hebrew much better than English.
Late last month, the camp was empty, save for a few young Egyptians, but Mr al Swerky said he did have a large group of Israelis the previous week. Mr al Swerky has worked in tourist camps for more than 10 years, and said 2003 was the peak for business. Between 60 and 70 per cent of Sinai's revenue comes from tourism, the rest is made up by trade, agriculture and some craft work. This dependence on tourism makes the Sinai economy far less stable than that of the rest of Egypt. And because of its proximity to Gaza and Israel, where there is always the potential for conflict, the southern stretch of Sinai from Taba is much more volatile, said Dr Samir Makary of the American University in Cairo's economics department.
On top of this, the Bedouin complain that their communities are overlooked by Cairo for investment projects, and that Egyptians reap greater benefit from the Sinai's tourism industry than indigenous Bedouin residents as they own most of the big hotels. Some have connected this lack of economic opportunity in the peninsula to the willingness of Sinai residents to smuggle goods and weapons into the Gaza Strip, and drugs and people into Israel.
Thousands of refugees and migrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, have passed the border illegally with the help of smugglers since 2005, even after Israel's attempts to destroy the tunnels near Rafah, a couple hours north of Taba. Goods still flow from Egypt into the Strip. The impact of Israeli visitors to Sinai is often overlooked as they account for only a small fraction of Egypt's overall tourism revenue. "They stay in very cheap hotels, and they do not spend a lot," said Dr Makary.
But while the loss of a few hundred thousand holidaymakers will not be detrimental to Egypt's tourism industry, the impact is being felt by the Bedouins who own most of the low-cost camps and taxi services. Next door to Castle Beach, the Ayyash camp is slightly busier. Amir Nezer, a 26-year-old Israeli film student, says most of his friends did not want to venture across the border. "My friends wanted to come but they are afraid," said Mr Nezer. It is his third trip to Sinai, which he likes for its calm atmosphere.
The Ayyash camp has a few Israeli guests, but most of the people lounging on mats around its low Bedouin-style tables are Egyptians and westerners. Further down the coast, Israelis are even scarcer. "I used to come here every month, but now the Palestinians and the Bedouin make problems," said one Israeli in a popular Dahab nightclub, echoing a much held belief that the problem is in Gaza. However, some remain optimistic. "Four or five years ago it was all Israelis here," said Abdalla Hashem, the owner of Sababa camp, meaning awesome in Hebrew. "But you still have some Europeans."
Mr Hashem's strategy is to attract other nationalities. "I have my children in Italy who market for me," he said. There was initial hope that numbers would crawl back up to pre-2004 levels, but with reports of Hizbollah monitoring Israelis in Sinai - and now the presence of al Qa'eda in the peninsula - it is likely that few Israelis will ignore government warnings and visit Sinai. * The National