But can this town recover from last April’s bombing?
DAHAB: For travelers on a sandal-string budget, the bus ride from Cairo to this rugged beach community on the eastern shores of the Sinai Peninsula is an ordeal of biblical proportions.
Not only are passengers subjected to a grueling, nine-hour ride, but they must pass through a minimum of six checkpoints, where police rigorously check passports and identification papers.
At one checkpoint near the Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel, which dives under the Suez Canal and links the Sinai Peninsula to the rest of Egypt, buses are routinely stopped and inspected for drugs, explosives and other contraband.
Such strict security precautions have become the norm in Sinai, which in recent years has been rocked by deadly bombings in the resort towns of Taba, Sharm El-Sheikh and Dahab.
Earlier this week, police seized two ton of explosives in northern Sinai, highlighting the region’s instability. Authorities said the explosives were of “the same type used in the Dahab bombings last April, which killed 20 and injured scores more.
Despite the strict security and the sense of unease, though, the destination is worth the trouble. Boasting sparkling turquoise waters, stunning coral reefs, delicious seafood and cheap accommodation, Dahab is a paradise for divers, beach bums and tanorexics looking to bask in the sun without dishing out the big bucks required at Sharm El-Sheikh’s private beaches.
The tourist ministry is also banking on Sinai beach retreats like Dahab to help fill the country’s coffers. Earlier this year, the ministry launched a massive new marketing campaign aimed at increasing annual tourist revenue. Dubbed “The Gift of the Sun, the ministry hopes to increase annual visitors from last year’s 8.6 million figure to 16 million in 2014.
According to Hala El-Khatid, a spokeswoman with the Ministry of Tourism, the tourists are starting to come back. “Dahab is back to normal, she tells The Daily Star Egypt, adding that occupancy rates at hotels and lodges have returned to normal after a two-month drop off following the bombings.
“We’ve followed occupancy rates. And by June, the numbers were fine, she says.
A friend and I decided to check it out for ourselves.
Pulling into Dahab on a recent sunny afternoon, we stepped off the bus delirious, dehydrated and dizzy, only to be swarmed by the touts who flock to the dusty bus terminal like a pack of hungry hyenas.
After dodging the aggressive sales pitches of Dr Bob, one of the town’s more colorful salesmen, we grabbed a pickup truck taxi and made for the Assalah district, which sprawls out of Dahab’s eastern edge along the Red Sea and offers dozens of cheap accommodation options.
We walked through a section of the Bedouin village, which is a collection of breeze-blocking fences and brick huts, and grabbed a simple, spotless double room with air conditioning (LE 50 per night) at the Dahab Diver’s Lodge.
With the sun setting behind the otherworldly mountains where Moses and his flock wandered for 40 years, we decided it was time to grab some dinner at one of the many restaurants along the seafront strip of Masbat.
Before we could chow down, though, we became embroiled with a few of the locals in an impromptu game of football. Even against barefooted rivals, we lost badly.
At least we worked up an appetite.
For dinner, we devoured a double order of Bedouin calamari, served with salad, babaganoug and humous (LE 45), and chugged an ice cold Stella (LE 8) at the Napoleon restaurant. While eating, we were joined by Mustafa, one of the restaurant’s touts, who told us that Dahab had lost its innocence.
“I lost some friends, he says of the bombings. “Most of the people who died were Egyptians.
One of them was a 19-year-old co-worker named Mohamed, who was “a very cool guy who didn’t even speak English.
Just before the bombs exploded in front of a nearby supermarket, Mohamed was sent to buy some fresh fish from a vendor in the area. He didn’t come back. After the explosions, “we went to find the bodies and he still had the fish in his hand.
Others here, like Hossam Mohamed at Smart Tours, say that despite the tourism ministry’s claims, the town has yet to fully recover.
“It’s not like before – the economy is bad here, he says, sitting in an empty office along Dahab’s rugged coastline.
“All the prices are cheaper now.
Plus, he says the type of tourist has changed from British, American and German tourists making longer stays to Russians and Poles looking for a quick fix of sun and sand.
On our second day, we made for the Lighthouse reef and snorkeled amongst hyper-colored coral and schools of tropical fish. Since no rivers flow into the Red Sea and its mouth is practically closed to the Indian Ocean, the warm waters here are filled with species of sea life found nowhere else on earth.
Scorched by the sun and waterlogged, we spent the evening at Rush (Stella goes for LE 14), a trendy diver hangout decorated with fishing nets, palm trees and a spotless blue swimming pool.
On our last day, we decided to check out the Laguna, where fierce winds lure windsurfers and kite surfers by the hundreds. Not to be left out of the action, we hired a sailboard (LE 100) from a helpful German employee at one of the many sail centers along the shore.
Thankfully, the natural lagoon is a perfect place to hone your sailing skills because it offers shallow waters where beginners can practice without fear of being pulled out to sea.
Before catching a bus back to Cairo, we stopped at one of the many shops in the town’s center and spoke with Saad Celse, who sells towels, bathing suits and T-shirts emblazoned with airbrushed pictures of the pyramids.
“The business is the same every year, but people are afraid of what happened, he says, pointing to a building that was damaged during the bombing. A new wall and a fresh layer of white paint betray the destruction.
“Now, can you see the difference? Can you see where the bomb was? Dahab is a beautiful place. It’s very simple and it’s not like Sharm. And the life here is coming back.