Several miles from the nearest town, in the heart of south Sinai, a group of tourists are resting around a fire. Around their garden campsite, the distorted, terracotta mountains are silent. These travellers count among a tiny handful to have visited this part of the Egyptian peninsula in recent years.
“Not long ago if you came here, you wouldn’t be able to find a place to stay,” local guide Naser Mansour says, rolling a cigarette in the red light. “All the gardens were full – I’d sometimes have to walk two hours in the wadi with my camels to find a place to sleep.”
From the Jabaliyya tribe and the mountain hub town of St Katherine, Mansour is one of many south Sinai Bedouin who have built a livelihood on tourism, guiding hundreds of hikers a year through the area’s rugged mountains.
Lately, however, the tourists haven’t been coming. After years of unrest and a rash of deadly terror attacks in the north and at the border with Israel, most foreign governments now warn against non-essential travel to all of the Sinai except Sharm-el-Sheikh, and tourists are taking heed.
“When there were a lot of tourists in the mountain, I thought it would be like that forever,” Mansour continues. “Back then, it was me and four others working all the time on the mountain. Now it’s just me.”
Since Egypt’s 2011 revolution, locals estimate, the number of tourists visiting the area around St Katherine has dropped from up to 5,000 to a few hundred annually. The decline has been economically devastating: many locals have sold their camels or shifted focus to small-scale agriculture; others have migrated to Cairo.
But some are fighting the decline. This spring, Mansour and a collective of local guides and activists organised Sinai is Safe – a weekend of hiking in the mountains around St Katherine. Nearly 70 people travelled to the event, hoping to challenge the perception of the Sinai as a danger zone.
“The narrative about the Sinai is framed by journalism and government travel advice. And unfortunately that takes away that ability of the local people to represent their own land,” Ben Hoffler, an organiser based in Sinai for six years, says. “With Sinai is Safe, we’re introducing Bedouin voices into this debate, because they know the Sinai better than anybody.”
Hoffler has chartered miles of trails in the south Sinai mountains which, while intimately understood by locals are largely unknown to outsiders. It’s the tight relationship between tribe and territory, he says, that guarantees relative security in the area: the Bedouin know every rock of the desert and don’t tolerate strangers in the areas they control.
“We have seven tribes around the Sinai,” Mansour says. “Every tribe protects one place, where he knows every wadi and every individual. If I’m walking in the mountain and I see anyone I don’t know, I talk with him. He’s not allowed in this place if I don’t know who he is.”
Musallam Faraj, another organiser, says the attacks taking place in north Sinai are naturally a concern, but believes a strong governmental response and tribal protection will prevent troubles spreading to the south. “We’re working with tourism, so we feel responsible for everyone that comes to this area, and we try our best to protect them,” he says.
Among those hikers that travel to St Katherine, many say actually visiting was all that was needed to transform Sinai from a place of fear to one of peace. Awe for the untouched green wadis, moonlike caves, and warm mountains that peak jaggedly toward the horizon mean most pledge to return.
“For people that don’t know it’s difficult to understand. They see this big unknown mountain, and think it carries lots of bad people. But that’s not right. It’s just the people from here,” Mansour, gesturing toward the hikers and guides eating and playing music around the fire, says. “Look what’s happening on the mountain; fun, laughing, friends. It’s different to what the people think.”