When I was around 11 or 12, my dad was the general manager of the Hilton Fayrouz in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, a resort town at the tip of the Sinai peninsula. I spent my summers like Eloise, the little girl who lived at the "tippy top" floor of the Plaza Hotel. Like her, I wandered the hotel grounds and made friends with the staff and tourists from Sweden to South Africa. Unlike her, I got to swim and snorkel in the sparkling aquamarine waters of the Red Sea.
In those days, the late 1990s, it seemed the stream of guests staying at the hotel would never end. The lobby, dining hall, bars, beaches and pool were always packed with happy, sunburned foreigners — in fact, on most days you were lucky if you could find an empty lounge chair or a clean beach towel. And my dad was always busy. Sometimes I'd catch glimpses of him, perspiring in his suit in the heat, shuttling to meetings from one end of the resort to the other. I'd only have enough time to wave "hi" to him from across the pool.
Almost two decades later, those familiar haunts are nearly empty. Tourism in Sharm — and many holiday hot spots across Egypt — took a major hit after the Russian plane crash last October, which killed all 224 passengers on board. The EgyptAir plane that disappeared on its way to Cairo over the Mediterranean Sea last month certainly isn't helping.
After the crash, countries like the U.K. and Russia canceled flights to Sharm because of concerns about terrorism. Tourists who really want to get to Sharm can find indirect flight routes, but that would be expensive. And some travelers are staying away because they're worried about the threat of ISIS in the Sinai peninsula.
The impact on the economy has been disastrous. The U.K. flight ban to Sharm el-Sheikh alone, which was enforced in November 2015, has contributed to Egypt's loss of an estimated $175 million a month. In Sharm el-Sheikh, which has 62,000 hotel rooms, occupancy plummeted to below 20 percent capacity in December, says an official at Egypt's Ministry of Tourism. And around 30 percent of Sharm's workforce has been laid off since the October plane crash, according to the Egyptian Tourist Guides Syndicate.
To support the town they love, 1,700 of Sharm el-Sheikh's fans have banded together in a private group on Facebook called "Fight for Sharm."
Started by Jackie Read, a 52-year-old nurse in the U.K. who had been regularly visiting Sharm since 2005 with her family, the page is a space where tourists, locals and hotel staff can stay connected.
"I set up the page as a way for people to express their love for Sharm el-Sheikh and the Egyptians [who work there]," says Read, who created the group just a few days after the Russian plane crash.
Some tourists exchange travel advisories and updates on flights ("We are so disappointed that our flight in April has been canceled for the third time"). Some write messages of solidarity to the staff ("I feel very sorry for our many friends who work at our hotel"). And some use the page to reminisce about happier times. One woman posted a photo of six smiling, tanned Brits at a hotel restaurant. "What a special night," she wrote.
Read, who used to spend two 14-day vacations at the Jaz Mirabel Beach Hotel in Sharm el-Sheikh each year, says she is "devastated" and "heartbroken" that she hasn't been able to return for months.
For her, Sharm is a special place — and not just because of the sun and surf. Read's mother passed away there during a holiday in 2013, and she witnessed a level of service from the staff that was "just above and beyond."
The staff planted an Indian jasmine tree in her mom's memory on a grassy patch on the hotel grounds. Earlier this month, the Egyptian driver who took Read to the hospital every day while her mother was sick called just to check in.
"I have been to many places abroad, but none have ever been like Sharm," she says. "People bend over backward to make you feel welcome."
Read worries most about the staffers — she calls them her "Egyptian family." Over the past decade, she has watched their children grow up. When she'd visit, she'd bring presents and dine with them.
"There's a lot of people out there who have been left with no money, no jobs," she says.
The staffers are trying to stay optimistic. Mohamed Gamal Mohamed, a member of the "Fight for Sharm" Facebook group, is one of the lucky ones. He still has his job as a front desk manager at the Jaz Mirabel Beach Resort, sending the bulk of his paycheck to his wife and child in Ismailia, a small town on the Suez Canal.
If he were laid off, he "trusts his ability" to find another job. "I can work in a small coffee shop, I can work on a farm, I can drive a taxi," he says.
But he trusts that visitors will come back. "We have a famous saying here in Sharm," he says. "Tourism may get sick, but it'll never die."
Recently, I posted a photo from my last trip to Sharm, back in 2009, on the Facebook page. In the picture, I'm under a thatched umbrella on the beach, leaning over a chalkboard sign of the day's weather, 102 degrees Fahrenheit. My curly black hair waved in the sea breeze, and I'm pretty sure I jumped into the water moments after.
A few hours after posting it, a man I never met from the U.K. left a comment underneath it: "I just wish I was there right now."