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Safe to swim
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 16 - 12 - 2010

After a spate of shark attacks, Egyptian authorities have reopened Sharm El-Sheikh's shores, Reem Leila reports
On 12 December, and after a series of shark attacks over the past three weeks during which one person was killed and four injured, Egyptian authorities reopened Sharm El-Sheikh's shores to tourists. Diving, snorkelling and water games have been finally allowed. Beaches of the popular resort which attracts more than four million tourists per year are back in action on condition that hotels and tourists abide by new regulations set by South Sinai Governor Mohamed Abdel-Fadil Shousha to ensure safety while diving or swimming.
The governor, who had lifted a ban on swimming and water games in the area imposed after the first attacks on 30 November and 1 December, said beaches have been allowed to reopen on condition that there should be continuous sea patrols by boat and the setting up of watchtowers along the shoreline where there should be professional divers equipped with binoculars which can monitor the water. Tourists will also be required to remain within designated swimming areas and refrain from feeding fish and sharks, or go beyond the allowed premises, Shousha said.
The instructions were based on a report issued by an international team of experts studying the environment and collecting data from local divers to try to understand why the sharks attacked. The report by the team, composed of US and Australian experts in the nature of sharks, recommended the drawing up of a map that charts the movement of sharks of different species in the Red Sea.
Team speculation has centred on the practice of luring sharks with bait, or chum, to film them, causing them to associate humans with food, or a depletion of fish stocks that could have forced them to seek alternative food sources.
The shark attacks, according to Elke Bojanowski, an expert on the Red Sea's white tip sharks, were likely provoked by a ship which threw dead sheep overboard while passing through the Red Sea, whetting the sharks' appetites.
"These sharks became used to having an easy meal. When being fed by tourists, fish gather in schools, producing high-sounding vibrations which can provoke the sharks to come and attack," Bojanowski said.
Bojanowski believes that shark attacks in Sinai can be reduced, but action has to be taken and the marine environment respected. Among Bojanowski's recommendations is a monitoring system capable of warning swimmers and tourists of approaching sharks.
According to Bojanowski, it is important to eliminate some of the fear that has spread among tourists about the recent shark attacks. It is also necessary to take precautions in case of further attacks in the future. Bojanowski says that with the right measures taken, the threat of attacks can be decreased, thus allowing tourists to enjoy the beauty of Egypt's beaches, which have been dubbed as "a tourism treasure" by George Burgess, director of the Florida Programme for Shark Research.
Shousha has begun taking steps to protect people from shark attacks, including installing reinforced steel nets to block sharks from entering beach areas. The nets, made of lattice, will allow smaller fish to enter.
Currently, a technical committee, part of the Suez Canal Administration, is deciding which areas are best for installing the nets. The governorate will pay for the nets, however, there is disagreement between Egyptian and international experts and the Ministry of State for Environmental Affairs about the plan, specifically in areas with coral.
Some hotels in Sharm El-Sheikh have already installed monitoring towers with trained lifeguards with whistles, one of the conditions the South Sinai governorate stipulated before allowing hotels to open their beaches again. Instructions have been handed out to tourists not to feed fish and to swim only in specific areas. White, red and black flags have also been put up to warn tourists of danger.
The resort at the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula has been booming since the 1980s. There are some 100 hotels, long stretches of sandy white beaches, desert safari excursions and a vibrant night life. Beach tourism is believed to contribute about 66 per cent of Egypt's total income from tourism which is expected to reach $12.3 billion by the end of the current fiscal year in June, Tourism Minister Zoheir Garana was quoted as saying at a press conference.
Hisham Zaazou, senior assistant to the minister of tourism, said Russian tourism in the area had been affected by the attacks. "It decreased by 20 per cent after many reservations among Russian groups were cancelled," said Zaazou.


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