The Seashell is a resort with grand ambitions. Its villas, apartments, pools and bars have room for several hundred guests, and its domed roofs and arched balconies look across the Red Sea to Saudi Arabia. Every morning, the sunrise fills the mountainous coastline with reddish gold light that spills across the Gulf onto expansive white sand beaches.
“My hotel will be unique,” says Ali Khalil, the businessman behind the project. “There’ll be a swimming pool, a big spa. It will look very beautiful one day.”
But that day hasn’t come yet. Construction on the Seashell complex, on the south coast of Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, has been suspended for years. The villas are naked concrete, baked in the sun like unpainted pottery. The swimming pool is a trough with light fixtures poking from the sides. There are no guests, many stray dogs, and one-full time member of staff—a watchman who spends much of his time tending a fruit orchard where mangoes, oranges and lemons grow.
If this were an isolated case, it would be mere misfortune. But the Seagull is just one ruin among dozens that line some 200 km (120 miles) of road on the southeastern Sinai coast. These ghost hotels are a product of the collapse of Egypt’s tourism industry after the revolution of 2011 and the political turmoil and terrorist attacks that followed.
But the fact that they were built at all is also a symbol of greed, haste, and the Egyptian government’s neglect of the Sinai’s local Bedouin population.
From the canopies and huts of his beach camp, Msallam Faraj can stroll to the ruins of several resorts like the Seagull—places with signs like “Dessole” or “Gulf Paradise,” where naked intersections of floors and walls expose the usually hidden geometry of floor plans.
But Faraj has built his shaded hammocks to face away from the hotels, toward the Gulf. “For me they destroy the beautiful view,” he says, gesturing toward the latticed shade of the ruins. “They took the land, which is mine, but they don’t use it.”
Many Bedouin like Faraj would have preferred to see the Sinai developed as an ecotourism hub. Before the hotel building rush began, the coastline was flooded with tourists and backpackers paying $10 a night to sleep on the beach. Many of these ad-hoc beach camps were runby local Bedouin whose families had lived in the Sinai for centuries. In the 1990s, Faraj had built a previous beach camp, “Bedouin Dream,” the culmination of a lifetime’s ambition to use his ecological knowledge to create a backpacker’s paradise.
Lured by the Bedouins’ success, investors started building hotels. But they rarely included the Bedouin in their work. Instead they built on land the tribes claimed as their own, while competing with existing businesses. Between 1992 and 2007, for example, all the plots of land in Sharm el Sheikh–a former Bedouin village that became a sprawling, loud resort town—were allocated to Egyptian and foreign investors, while the Bedouin were relegated to the desert.
Land disputes between new investors and locals sometimes turned nasty, and many developers found themselves paying protection money or employing members of local tribes as security. But the money Bedouin made from these arrangements didn’t make up for the marginalization they felt.
As for “Bedouin Dream,” Faraj says it was destroyed by government bulldozers as it was just getting started, on the pretext that he hadn’t obtained the proper building permits. “They destroyed the whole dream,” he says.
When the Egyptian revolution began in early 2011, panicked tourists fled from Sharm el Sheikh. Their numbers haven’t rebounded since. In 2012, tourism visits across Egypt had fallen by by one third; by the beginning of this year, Egypt was losing an estimated £120 million ($170 million) a month and visitor numbers to Sharm had declined by 85%.
The Sinai has been particularly badly hit thanks largely to a violent Islamist insurgency in the north of the peninsula. Last October, after the downing of a Russian airliner from Sharm—believed to be the work of an ISIL affiliate—foreign countries suspended flights to the resort and warned tourists against the Sinai.
It was a dark reminder of the summers of 2004-6, when more than 125 people were killed in bombings of packed south Sinai resorts. Then, and now, analysts pointed to several causes for the violence. The Sinai’s integration into Egypt has always been problematic: The region was controlled by Israel between 1967 and 1979, and local Bedouin are often excluded from economic opportunities in the Egyptian mainland and the Sinai itself. The north, left out of much of the benefits of aid and tourism, has been particularly marginalized, which has contributed to the rise of violence.
The south Sinai hasn’t fallen to extremism as the north has, despite the decline in tourism. Down the Red Sea coast and in the mountains, Bedouin work to keep the area secure against terrorist attacks, explains Mohanned Sabry, an analyst focused on the Sinai. But, he adds, “The Bedouins have never been allowed to take an active part in the tourism economy of South Sinai. They have never been considered as the most deserving community of those benefits.”
In Dahab, a laid-back diving resort favored by low-budget travelers, there’s less of a gap between all-inclusive resorts and beach camps. Both Bedouin and foreign or Egyptian businesspeople run basic, backpacker-style hotels, albeit in different parts of town. These days, most are despondent. Last year, occupancy rates in Dahab stood around 30%, and after a barrage of crises, the town is bordered by half-finished hotels, many even more ambitious and dilapidated than the Seashell.
“We can talk about two points: before 2011, and after,” says Tito, a guesthouse manager who came from the mainland 15 years ago to set up a life in Dahab, says. “Before, it was much busier… it was working, working, working. Almost 18 hours every day. The business was great. It was perfect. After the second revolution, it was like a hard, sharp, warning from the world: ‘Don’t go to Egypt, don’t go to Sinai.’ It was almost empty. No one came.”
Tito spends many of his long hours at the hotel and its beachside restaurant waiting for a trickle of visitors. On a break, he walks the curved boulevard away from the hotel—a ten-minute stroll that leads, through increasing levels of dilapidation, to a burnt-out beachside nightclub that once hosted all-night parties. Further on are other semi-completed, abandoned resorts. They are grand in scale: curving central complexes that cradle a cluster of boxes perched on stone legs, apartment buildings now resembling something extraterrestrial. A car is parked in the striped shade of the buildings where two young men sit smoking. A stray dog follows Tito as he picks through the rubble.
Many workers have left the resorts of south Sinai, but Tito says he’ll hold out for business to pick up in Dahab. He has been through tough times here before, he says, and the region has bounced back. At the Seashell, Khalil says the same.
Not far away, Faraj too is hopeful that violence will abate and the tourists will start coming back. But for him the future of tourism here is in the mountains and beaches, not luxury resorts. In addition to his beach camp he is working on a development up in the mountains where visitors can be closer to nature and learn more about the Sinai itself.
“We want to develop Sinai. But we want to develop it in a very intelligent way,” he says. “This, one of the beautiful places, this Gulf. It should be done, and finished, and clean, it should look nice… Not like the systems that they thought to make.”