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Published on : Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Near Egypt’s popular Red Sea resorts, beside a field of poppies, sits a motley crew of unlikely drug lords: an Oud player, a resort chef, and a taxi driver. They used to work together, taking tourists on desert safaris and entertaining them with traditional food, music and camel rides. However, when tourists stopped travelling here, they started a new business: producing opium.
Weekly clashes between protesters and security forces and a spike in retaliatory terror attacks have threatened tourists. According to the Tourism Ministry, the numbers of foreign tourists has plummeted by 30 % since last year, and tourist revenues have been cut in half.
In February, the bombing of a tourist bus that killed three South Korean travellers and the Egyptian driver at the Israeli border prompted 15 countries, including Canada, to declare travel warnings. Sinai’s holiday region has been dealt the worst blow. Even the area’s main city, Sharm el-Sheikh, with its coastline of resorts, restaurants and nightclubs heavily guarded by the military, is practically empty.
Nestled into the cliffs to the east of St. Catherine’s Monastery, a famous tourist attraction near Mount Sinai, there is now dozens of new poppy fields.
When the tourism work dried up, Ahmed, 24, the taxi driver, says they jointly invested nearly $30,000 in a well but the government refused to give them the mandatory permit to grow legitimate crops like vegetables.
Amr Osman, says that the government is aware Bedouin tour operators are turning to drug production, who manages the cabinet-affiliated National Front for Drug Control. But the military and security forces have been focused on efforts to crush an insurgency in North Sinai. Development plans to encourage legal cultivation of crops and tourism are on hold while the peninsula remains unstable. Anti-drug campaigns are sporadic.
“Our message is for tourists to return,” says Mahmoud.
He and his two friends pray growing opium is a temporary measure until the political situation is stabilized and they can go back to running desert treks.
“There wouldn’t be any opium if there was tourism.”