Although we did not expect to be spared by COVID 19 in Egypt, the decision about closing the Egyptian airports came as somewhat of a surprise. Cancelling all touristic activities for a minimum oft wo weeks is quite an extreme move, especially if they suspected it could go on even longer. It is safe to say that on the ground we anticipated it to be longer than two weeks, but we didn’t know for how long. So as a foreign resident in Egypt then comes the decision – to stay or go? I decided to stay and here we are three months later, still waiting for the airports to reopen.
Life in Shagra during lock down
After the final guests went on their way and we closed our doors, a skeleton staff were kept back to keep things ticking over. With no ‘home’ in Egypt I was allowed to stay on site and continued working, keeping in touch with our tour operators about cancellation policies and catching up on admin tasks. After 2 weeks had passed with us all having been quarantined here together and symptom-free we knew we could relax a little around each other. It was a very strange feeling to see Shagra so empty and it was obvious this was going to go on for some time.
I did a few dives and after a couple of weeks of lock down there were clearly more fish on the house reef, especially more juveniles and schooling fish (goatfish, snappers, etc), and more of the shy types that you don’t see so often – scribbled filefish, arabian boxfish and so on. One day I had a magical morning with over 80 dolphins in the bay, curious and playing with me and each other. It’s a morning I will never forget.
But in general the marine life on our house reef was pretty much the same – hopefully a sign that we do quite a good job of looking after it even when we have guests.
I’m among those lucky ones who continue to have a job and get my salary but not everyone in the Red Sea tourism industry has been so lucky. The staff has always been the core of Red Sea Diving Safari and the priority of our owners. We in Shagra used the time to take catch up with a lot of unfinished tasks, personal projects and also to improve our ping pong skills!
Preparing for the re-opening
As time went on we realised that this was going to go on longer than we expected but thankfully the Egyptian government finally put in place some regulations for the hotels to reopen in time for the feast at the end of Ramadan. We set to work to pass our reopening audit and finally were able to receive guests on 21stMay, up to a maximum of 25% occupancy of our total rooms. The measures required by the authorities are extensive and expensive. Every single part of the hotel and diving operation had to be examined and adjusted to incorporate high levels of social distancing and sanitisation.
We now require every guest to be tested for COVID-19 before entry to the village. When foreigners return the authorities are talking about testing at the airport, or asking for a PCR test certificate. It still has not been confirmed and the first flights are due to land in a few days, but for the moment our Egyptians and foreign residents cannot enter the door until they’ve visited the on-site doctor and been tested. All hotels have to have an on-site clinic and on-call doctor, areas reserved for quarantining cases and procedures in case someone has symptoms. We had to install glass screens at contact points such as reception and the cafteria, extensive signage and switch to an a la carte menu instead of buffet service. For diving, guests have to prepare their equipment further apart from each other (which is actually rather nice!), they can no longer write their own name on the house reef white boards, they can’t use the rinse tanks but must rinse their equipment under the shower, and they can’t spit in their masks to defog them. Guests cannot enter the diving centre themselves to book their trips and they must bring their own mouthpiece or purchase one if they are renting a regulator. All rental equipment has to undergo a deep disinfection process between guests. And so it goes on.
One of the parts that pained me most personally was the backwards steps in environmental progress – back to single-use water bottles instead of our water dispenser scheme, wrapping cutlery in plastic, the use of masks and gloves. It is completely against our policy and something which I really hope will not last too long.
Will things go back to normal?
On 21stMay we started to receive guests again, mostly from Cairo and Alexandria, a mix of Egyptians and foreign residents. Now we wait for the reopening of the airports which will hopefully bring the return of our foreign guests. Officially this should happen on 1stJuly. It’s all a waiting game and the situation continues to change every few days. It’s a question I get asked multiple times daily by our guests and partners, and one which is very difficult to answer with any certainty given the increasing number of COVID-19 cases in Egypt and the possibility of a second wave in many other countries. What I can say is that Egypt is ready and prepared to receive tourists. The authorities take safety and health of tourists very seriously indeed and when divers are finally able to come back to the Red Sea, the diving conditions will be better than ever. Even though things top-side have changed almost beyond recognition, and who knows how long for, the underwater world is still there waiting for us and we can enjoy it just as before.
We have no idea how things will develop in Egypt and globally. What I can say is that Egypt is ready and prepared to receive tourists. The authorities take safety and health of tourists very seriously indeed and when divers are finally able to come back to the Red Sea, the diving conditions will be better than ever. Even though things top-side have changed beyond recognition, and who knows how long for, the underwater world is still there waiting for us and we can enjoy it just as before.