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Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh lures tourists with sun, sand and cheap deals

Yasmina Muslemany/ NBC News

Mother and children take a stroll on Sharm El Sheikh's sandy beach.

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt – While Islamists and liberals struggle for Egypt’s post-revolution identity in Cairo, Sharm el-Sheikh, the crown jewel of the country’s Red Sea resort towns, might as well be a world away.

Before the revolution, the Sinai Peninsula was one of Egypt’s biggest tourism draws, but businesses have suffered as tourists have stayed away while the country has been perceived as unstable and unsafe.

That is slowly changing due to alluring vacation packages, offering much cheaper rates than those before the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak.

Now, sun seekers are slowly returning to Sharm’s soft sand beaches, where women often sunbathe topless while sipping on icy cocktails.  

Front row beach chairs were hard to come by during a recent holiday weekend with hotels at full occupancy.  

Cheap ticket to paradise
Flying in, the purplish ridges of the Sinai Mountains give way to sandy beaches and the shimmering turquoise sea dotted with coral reefs.  

Sharm was, and remains, a Mecca for divers and snorkelers. It has stunningly colored coral reefs teeming with 1,200 species of marine life, a protected marine park and world renowned dive sites.  

Sharm’s peaceful Naama Bay was a typically international scene over a recent weekend. Friends and families chatted away in Russian, Italian, German, melodic Lebanese Arabic and English as children played in the sea and bikini-clad women strolled along the beach. 

“We were looking for a holiday, not too far away, with guaranteed weather. We have been sitting at the pool and the beach, doing yoga and Pilates, and snorkeling,” said Debby Ramdeo, a Londoner who was sharing a lounge chair with her mother. 

Yasmina Muslemany/NBC News

Hotel recreation staff lead tourists in an aerobics class on Naama Bay beach in the South Sinai resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh.

She and her parents paid $922 each for a 10-day vacation, including airfare, hotel and meals.  

“The weather is fantastic!” smiled Ramdeo. “In the U.K., it's just 36 degrees Fahrenheit.”

Sarah Binns, a 32-year-old training manager from Brighton, England also came for the sun. 

“It is the closest place we can go at this time of year that is hot,” said Binns, sun bathing next to her friend. “I was here four years ago and it’s pretty much the same,” she added. 

Binns and her friend Kathleen Gann, a 28-year-old retailer also from the U.K., chose Sharm over Dubai because of the cost and the variety of activities ranging from camel riding to parasailing over the bay. They each paid $900 for one week, including airfare and a Marriott hotel stay with meals included.

Gann, who was on her fourth visit to Sharm, said she felt safe because the U.K. had lifted an earlier advisory against tourism to the South Sinai. “It’s good value for money over Dubai,” she said.  

One of the few veiled women on the beach, Nadia Hassan, played backgammon with her mother in the shade of an umbrella. 

Hassan, a 36-year-old Jordanian housewife, lives in Cairo. She fled the pollution, pressure and politics of the capital for the beach.  

“It’s relaxing. Everything in Sharm is good. Everybody is free to look the way they want and act the way they want. People are kind, friendly and welcoming.”

Yasmina Muslemany/NBC News

Trainer gives children an introductory dive lesson in Naama Bay in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh.

Business improving
At Camel Dive, one of the town’s oldest dive centers and hotels, things are looking up. Marketing manager Clare Mucklow, 40, noted slow but steady improvement. 

“On a peak holiday, we can fill the resort. We haven’t had to change our prices and we are, normally, 60 to 70 percent full,” said Mucklow.   

“The type of guests has changed. We still have repeat guests who have gone diving in Sharm before, but we have lost people who are coming to learn diving.” He blamed reports in the European media for driving away first-time visitors.

Mahmoud Bassiouny, the front desk manager at the popular Movenpick Jollie-Ville Resort, said, “It’s not the same as before [the revolution].” But he added the hotel was running at 80 percent occupancy.

Gangnam style
As night fell on a recent evening, tourists drifted onto the faux cobbled streets of Naama Bay. Small restaurants beckoned at every turn with glassed cases displaying the catch of the day on ice. 

Nightclubs jockeyed for customers with different attractions: men in long white gowns doing poor impressions of the “Gangnam Style” dance, whirling dervishes twirling to Arabic music and fire dancers juggling flames scarily close to awe-struck patrons.  

While Egyptians continue to do battle in Cairo over the shape of the country’s future, Sharm, an oasis of fun, acceptance and beauty, carries on.

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