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During Sinai Plane Crash Probe, Sharm el-Sheikh Hits A Rough Patch

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's trace the crash of a Russian airliner back to the airport from which it left. It's at a resort city called Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt. And it's easy there to see what is at stake in the investigation of that crash. U.S. officials are growing more comfortable with blaming a bomb. Egyptian authorities are not comfortable with that at all. And we'll talk this morning with NPR's Leila Fadel, who's in Sharm el-Sheikh. Hi, Leila.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Hi.

INSKEEP: What are leaders of different countries saying about the crash?

FADEL: Well, at this point, Egypt will not even utter the word bomb. They continue to talk about an in-flight breakup. They say there was a sound on the cockpit voice recorder that they're analyzing. Meanwhile, other countries, as you said, are more comfortable with the idea that this was a bomb. They're saying that it looks like it was probably done by the self-declared Islamic State, that there is a possibility that someone at the airport may have helped get that bomb on a plane. Again, everybody's saying the evidence isn't a hundred percent conclusive. But this is more and more what it's looking like, based on the investigation and intelligence.

INSKEEP: So we can phrase that as a question; did someone at the airport help get a bomb on that plane at the airport in Sharm el-Sheikh, where you are? How is security there?

FADEL: It's not a hundred percent known whether this was an inside job. But there's a lot of complaints about security. This is a small airport, and security's quite lax. I spoke to tourists who say they've been here, you know, a dozen times. And every time they come through, they are able to bribe people to get to the front of the line. They say when your bag is going through the X-ray machine, nobody's looking at it. They don't ask you to take out liquids. They never ask questions. And so people are really, really worried about that.

INSKEEP: Well, this gets to the question of the effects of this crash, Leila Fadel, because that airport of course is the gateway to a major resort community that depends on people coming through the airport. What is the flow of people like?

FADEL: Well, I went to the airport at Sharm el-Sheikh. And at the arrivals hall there was really not many people at all waiting for luggage. There was maybe one tiny tour group of less than 10 people. And then, when I walked over to the departure hall, it was really chaos - tour bus after tour bus coming in, unloading tourists, trying to fly them home, tanned Europeans slumped on top of their suitcases waiting for the security line to thin out. And now the airport is being secured by the military, a sign that Egypt realizes what's happened here. There have also been Russian inspectors coming to look at security at the airport. Now, the ramifications for this tourist resort town are dire. Tens of thousands of Egyptians here depend mostly on Russian and Britons coming to the beach here to escape the cold in Moscow and London. This is the season for them.

BASEL KHEDR: This is a five-star, all-inclusive resort. I have 550 rooms, suites, family rooms and villas, five pools, a lot of restaurants and bars.

FADEL: Basel Khedr owns the Sultan Gardens hotel and resort in Sharm el-Sheikh. He shows me around the glistening pools, the sea views, the bars, the restaurants and the kids' clubs. Tourists play darts in bikinis and sun themselves by the pool. But the numbers are dropping off fast.

KHEDR: This time last week, I was at 92 percent occupancy in my hotel. Today, I'm at 60 percent. Tomorrow, I don't know yet. But I don't expect it to be nearly as good.

FADEL: Over half of his guests were British and Russian. Both those countries have stopped flying tourists in, and they're sending empty planes to get their citizens out. Sultan Gardens is one of dozens of resorts struggling to keep their doors open. Tourism has been in a downward spiral since the 2011 uprising against ousted president Hosni Mubarak and the years of instability that have followed.

KHEDR: It has been challenging the last couple of years. And obviously, every time you think it's about to get better, unfortunately something else happens.

FADEL: Khedr has 550 employees that depend on tourism to feed their families.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

FADEL: At the reception desk, most guests are inquiring about outgoing flights. Many are repeat visitors to Sharm el-Sheikh. Londoner Kay Bartlett has been to this resort five times.

KAY BARTLETT: This whole security situation is very disappointing. We flew out on Monday only to find that by Tuesday, there were no more flights.

FADEL: She wants to come back to this beach and this hotel. But Bartlett isn't sure that she will. Holidays are about convenience, she says. And she's been delayed for days now and can't get back to work. The staff at the front desk is trying to stay optimistic. I ask one of them, Mohamed Zaki, if he's worried. He says, no.

MOHAMED ZAKI: I am sure that a few - in a few weeks, not a few months or years, it will come back again and strong again because I know a lot of people love it. And this place - there is not a lot of place like Sharm el-Sheikh here in all the world.

FADEL: He's seen this before. In 2005, a series of bombings in Sharm el-Sheikh killed 88 people and devastated the economy. But the place bounced back.

ZAKI: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

ZAKI: (Foreign language spoken).

FADEL: As guests come to the desk, Zaki effortlessly switches from English to Italian to Arabic. But his colleague, Emad Shehata, is less rosy about the situation. He just got married, has a baby on the way and is worried he'll lose his job.

EMAD SHEHATA: This very bad news for me because our hotel more 50 percent for Russian people. When it's winter, English and Russian people, exactly 70 percent for the hotel. Now there's no Russian or English.

FADEL: Nearby, owner Basel Khedr offers to help guests with their luggage when they return from the airport because they couldn't get flights out.

KHEDR: Are you guys leaving, coming back? What happened?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We've come back.

KHEDR: They're not going to let you fly?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Nope.

FADEL: You know, Steve, Khedr that this is having a domino effect. He already had to cut rates to attract guests to this hotel in the first place. And now he's cutting orders to his suppliers. So everyone is really suffering, not just the people directly working in tourism.

INSKEEP: But what about the hundreds of people who do work for this hotel owner?

FADEL: Well, he's saying his staff lives paycheck to paycheck. They depend on this season, when Russians especially flock over here to get away from the cold. And because of this crash, they've already had so many cancellations. And there are employees supporting families of maybe 13 people who are also facing high inflation in Egypt. So with business dropping, they're making fewer tips. He's tried to put a positive spin on it. There's a saying here in Sharm el-Sheikh that tourism in Egypt may get sick, but it never dies.

INSKEEP: OK, Leila, thanks very much.

FADEL: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Leila Fadel in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.