In light of the devaluation of the Egyptian pound and increasingly difficult visa processes, more and more Egyptians are turning to domestic tourism. Yet, while tourists continue for the most part to visit South Sinai, there are still widespread security concerns over travel in the rest of the peninsula, particularly areas of North Sinai, where movement is restricted amid ongoing threats from militant groups in the area and a crackdown by security forces following the removal of President Mohamed Morsi from power in 2013.
In an effort to boost tourism in some of South Sinai's less frequented territories, three Bedouin tribes in the area have collaborated to run the "Sinai Trail," a mountaineering and trekking initiative that stretches 200 km from the Gulf of Aqaba to the city of Saint Catherine, with the support of foreign funds.
Invited by the organizers to cover the project, I joined 21 other hikers and journalists on the trail's inaugural hike. Far from the heavily-secured roads connecting various cities in Sinai, the mountainous heart of the peninsula retains a degree of autonomy, run and secured by various Bedouin tribes that have maintained good relations with the Armed Forces in the area.
"The Bedouin tribes are capable of keeping Sinai safe without arms," says Sheikh Ahmed Abu Rashed from the Jebeleyya Tribe, and the spokesperson for the Sinai Trail. "We abide by Bedouin laws, Al-a'raf — communal laws that aren't enforced by the government."
Despite their relative autonomy, Abu Rashed stresses that the Bedouin communities in the area remain on good terms with the Armed Forces. "The Bedouins are usually misunderstood by younger, lower-ranking soldiers, but the generals maintain a deep understanding of our culture and what it stands for," he says.
"To bridge any gaps that may have occurred between the authorities and our community, and to avoid any unnecessary violence, we make sure that younger Bedouins are also educated in the proper ways of dealing with soldiers," he adds.
The Bedouins involved in the organization of the Sinai Trail also sought support from the Ministry of Tourism, which they say fell on deaf ears — from calls that were never returned to appointments that were never granted. Key figures from among the Bedouin community frequently tried to reach out to the ministry in the hope of securing assistance in highlighting the various forms of tourism that lie in the mountain ranges of the peninsula, not just tourism on its coasts.
"It wasn't until we won the BGTW best tourism project at the British Guild of Travel Writers in late 2016 that Tourism Ministry officials actually started listening to us," Abu Rashed says. Nonetheless, no clear assistance was offered from the ministry.
The Sinai Trail provides Bedouin communities with job opportunities, and as such, its organizers are keen to continue finding ways around the obstacles they face.