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Britain has sent a security services team to assess the vulnerability of the major Egyptian tourist resort of Sharm el-Sheikh to an increasing terrorism threat, the Telegraph has learned.
As thousands of holiday makers prepare to fly out to the southern Sinai region for Easter holidays, the government has also put its travel advice to the resorts in the area under close review.
The security team – believed to include members of the British armed forces – made the trip after a tourist bus was hit by a roadside bomb in Taba, near the Israel border, killing the driver and three South Koreans in mid-February.
The attack by Sinai-based jihadists marked a dramatic shift in the campaign against the Egyptian regime and led to some tour operators withdrawing their customers from Sharm el-Sheikh.
Thomas Cook and Tui flew hundreds of German tourists home after Berlin changed its travel advice. The British Foreign Office adjusted its advice to tourists in the aftermath of the incident to sanctioning travel only within the Sharm el-Sheikh security perimeter barrier.
But since then the British security team has made its visit and Egypt’s government believes it has satisfied safety concerns.
On Tuesday the Egyptian ambassador to London appealed on the government to resist pressure to change its advice for travellers, even though he conceded the terrorist threat within his country was growing in the run-up to presidential elections in May.
Ashraf Elkholy told the Telegraph that he believes the British team’s on-the-ground assessment broadly endorsed the Egyptian security cordon thrown up around the resorts.
“We have had a team from the security forces of Britain in the tourist areas to monitor the measures and see what measures are in place that are satisfactory,” Mr Elkholy said. “The security team has been there and we have cooperated and we hope that the decision taken will be the right one.
“Tourism is for the benefit of the Egyptian economy and the British traveller as an affordable and close destination.”
Whitehall officials have said that no change in the position in terms of travel advice would be announced imminently.
“In light of the Taba incident we wanted to ensure we had the right information,” an official said. “We will be looking at the situation very close and if anything necessitated a change we would act very quickly.”
The roadside bomb attack near Taba was claimed by Ansar al-Jerusalem, an al-Qaeda insurgent group.
Islamist groups have intensified attacks since the Egyptian military overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Mohammed Morsi in July, facing down bloody protests as it installed a caretaker government.
Having deposed the directly elected president and ratified a new constitution, that government is preparing to elect a new president next month.
With the head of the military, Field Marshal Abdelfattah el-Sisi the overwhelming favourite to win the vote, dissident groups are expected to target the elections.
“What we have to expect during this procedure is an increase in terrorist action as they have to prove themselves and unfortunately Egyptians and non-Egyptians will be the targets of this,” Mr Elkholy said.
George Readings of the security analysts Stirling Assynt said attacks on tourist targets signalled a shift in the terrorist focus from the Egyptian military to the overall stability of the economy. Given Egypt’s struggling economic performance, inflicting damage on tourist industry would knock out one of the most lucrative parts of the economy.
“We expect a major shift in the Jihadist logic that will see them increase their attacks on the tourist sector after the polls,” he said. “They will want to undermine el-Sisi’s new administration and will be aware that their current tactic of targeting the security forces has not had the effect they had hoped. The emphasis will therefore shift to the economically crucial travel industry both in the Sinai and Egypt proper. The southern Sinai resorts are heavily guarded but were struck in the 2000s and are often associated with the army and the old regime.”
Large operators such as Thomas Cook and Tui are still providing package tours to the area.
Bob Atkinson of Travel Supermarket, the price comparison site for holiday bookings, said the operators were tied to government advice by contractual obligations.
“We’ve seen suppressed demand for a destination that until three years ago was experiencing rapid growth and outperforming the overall market,” he said. “It’s quite a dilemma for the big tour companies which have a commercial deals on a country by country basis with the destinations. They can weigh up a pan-European approach but they will still have obligations to the hoteliers and aircraft seats booked that can’t be deployed elsewhere.”