With UK-bound flights indefinitely suspended and international carriers also avoiding Sinai, trapped tourists spent Thursday wondering when they'd get out. News came in trickles, but at least the weather was nice.
A day after the UK suspended flights from Sharm el-Sheikh, British holidaymakers left stranded in the Egyptian resort watched planes depart for elsewhere but received little information as to when they, too, might get to head home. And, less than a week after a Russian charter flight exploded in midair over the Sinai Peninsula, there were more precautions and rumors than real news.
Officials from Egypt and Russia say there's no evidence that the plane was downed by a bomb on board, US authorities say there's no direct evidence, but Britain's foreign secretary says terrorism is "a significant possibility." Whatever the cause, the explosion came just four months after 38 tourists, 30 of them British, were gunned down in the Tunisian beach resort of Sousse.
"At the moment, it is just speculation, but I think after the Tunisia attack the British government doesn't want to wait," said James Whyte, a Londoner who traveled to Sharm el-Sheikh for a wedding last week and was scheduled to depart Thursday. "They are just doing this kind of very over-the-top security to make people feel that they're okay, but really I don't know if delaying people's flights and checking on their security is going to make people feel better, because it's kind of showing that there's a problem."
Whyte booked with British Airways, which, going by UK government updates, plans to resume traffic between Sharm el-Sheikh and London Friday, moving flights back just a day. BA also allows passengers to claim refunds or switch destinations. Competitors seem less optimistic. The budget carrier easyJet canceled four flights to Sharm el-Sheikh from London on Thursday, one from Manchester, and one from Milan, Italy, and booked passengers stuck in Egypt into hotels while it awaited further news from the government. Then, Easyjet announced late Thursday that it planned to resume flights on Friday, running six supplementary flights in addition to its regular schedule.
Thomas Cook has canceled flights between Sharm el-Sheikh and the UK through next Thursday and is allowing free rebooking for outbound passengers scheduled to fly in the week, or a discount of 25 pounds (35 euros/$38) for travelers booking alternative holidays. "The health and safety of our customers and staff is our absolute priority, and we will be seeking to bring all 1,700 customers currently in resorts back to the UK in due course," the airline announced in a statement released early Thursday.
'It's very strange'
Whyte said a pall fell over the resort Saturday as guests, many of them Russian, watched news about the Airbus A321, which crashed on the Sinai Peninsula shortly after it took off for St. Petersburg, killing all 224 people on board. Most of the passengers were Russians heading home from vacations at Red Sea resorts. Whyte said it seemed like most tourists still in Sharm el-Sheikh after the crash are either Russian or British.
"The Russians are a lot quieter," he said. "The British are still being very British, you know, drinking like British people do. But it's very strange: It's a normal holiday destination and resort and everything's going on, but everybody knows that they can't just leave."
About 100 kilometers (60 miles) north in Dahab, a town popular with backpackers and divers, a man who answered the phone at the Penguin Village resort said the hotel had had even more guests arrive since last weekend's crash. "It was already scheduled and they already booked their rooms and everything and they are here and there's no problems at all," Ahmed said. "They've been sad since they heard about the plane, especially the Russians - we have a big Russian community here in Dahab and Sharm el-Sheikh, too - but now it's okay. We are all waiting. We are waiting for the news about the real causes of the plane falling down."
On Thursday, British tourists in south Sinai just had to wait, too - wait for flights to restart, wait for news about when that might happen. UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told British television that the government would work with airlines on a short-term screening and evacuation program for nationals stranded in Sharm el-Sheikh. The measures would "allow us to screen everything going on to those planes, double-check those planes." At the same time, the German airline Lufthansa announced that it would temporarily suspend flights to Sharm el-Sheikh on two of its subsidiary carriers, closing one more possible exit.
London-based weather forecaster Gareth Harvey reported "no panicking and not too much being discussed about the situation around the pool this afternoon." He also reported a lack of steady and reliable updates. "From what I gather, there isn't much information being provided from operators, and we seem to be learning things only from news agencies online," he wrote in a private Twitter message. "We simply want to know if we will get home on Monday as planned," he added.
In fact, it seemed like many of the stranded Brits granted extra hours - or potentially days - in the coastal idyll were going to have a hard time enjoying their extended stays.
"It's a little bit like 'The Prisoner,' knowing that it's not really real because everybody has work to get back to, families and friends to get back to," Whyte said, referencing the 1967 British series about an idyllic-seeming village that residents can never leave. "You're sitting there going, 'Oh well, I'm on this delightful beach.' It couldn't look nicer - it looks like paradise - but in the back of your mind you think, 'What if something happens?'" He added: "If someone says to you, 'Here, have another day's holiday,' normally you'd be like fantastic, but right now everyone's just like, 'We'd rather be at home.'"