When Lawrence of Arabia (Peter O’Toole) raises his sword and cries “Akaba!” in the David Lean movie he’s initiating a brilliant tactical victory. The Turkish-controlled port of Akaba lies defenseless from an attack from the land, rather than the sea.
With the capture of Akaba, Lawrence (real and fictive) commanded one of the most pristine and exquisite stretches of water in the world, the Gulf of Akaba, a wedge-shaped split between the Sinai Peninsula to the west and Arabia.
It took another 60 years for the rest of the world to make the same discovery.
After the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel took control of the Sinai. At the southeastern tip sat a small fishing port named Sharm el-Sheikh. By then, some of Europe’s more adventurous scuba divers had discovered that just offshore, beneath the limpid waters where the Gulf of Akaba met the Red Sea, there was a 2,600-foot reef wall and spectacular coral gardens.
Seeing the opportunity, the Israelis began developing Sharm el-Sheikh as a resort, attracting at first dive clubs and then people seeking the year-round pleasures of a subtropical climate with beaches and a backdrop of striking desert and mountain landscapes.
When the Sinai was returned to Egypt after the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty, the Egyptians carried on the development of resorts.
They were following a pattern first seen in Europe. In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s pale-skinned northern Europeans with new middle-class wealth and dreams began pouring south to previously under-developed parts of the Mediterranean coastline.
Spain was the country most transformed. Within a decade or so small fishing villages on the Costa Brava and Costa Blanca were subsumed into beachfront clusters of high-rise apartments and hotels. (South Florida was a forerunner of both the style and the culture.)
One of these resorts, Benidorm, became a virtual colony of deeply tanned (and beer-swilling) Brits, many of them so addicted to the changed life style that after a few summers on vacation they bought flats and villas for retirement.
This was not just a huge change in acclimatization and European mobility. It required serious investments in infrastructure to support it. Of those capital investments, airports were the most crucial because only air travel offered the speed and frequency needed to meet the demand.
For the first time in Europe, destination airports became as fundamental to profitable airline operations as major city airports. Coastal “backwaters” were suddenly handling hundreds of flights a day.
The economics of resort air travel eventually enforced their own logic on the airline business. Traditional national carriers failed to see the opportunity and kept their fares too high for the sun-seekers. Charter airlines operated mostly by travel agencies who created packaged tours combining flights and hotels stepped in—until the appearance of budget airlines.
Today Europe’s biggest budget airline, Ryanair, flies more than 3 million passengers a year into the airport at Alicante, Spain that serves many Costa Blanca resorts including Benidorm.
But with these “sun farms” of the Mediterranean becoming commonplace and so readily accessible, many Europeans began looking for more exotic and adventuresome destinations.
“There was greater spending power and the urge to try somewhere that was not already an established destination” says Craig Jenks, an analyst of the aviation business and president of Airline/Aircraft Projects in New York. “All of Europe is now well-trodden, and there were new aircraft able to fly longer non-stop routes.”
This new generation of single-aisle jets flown by budget carriers (following the Southwest Airlines model) was a huge boost to Sharm el-Sheikh, which had the advantage of its year-round subtropical climate—in winter even the southern Mediterranean can be stormy and the water too cold for swimming. (Its appeal to Russians, with two major cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg, only a few flying hours away, was compelling.)
The numbers of people now flying non-stops to Sharm el-Sheikh are startling. When flights were suspended following the crash of the Russian Metrojet charter it emerged that 45,000 Russians and 20,000 Brits were staying at the resorts along the coast from the airport. I have to confess that I thought there was one zero too many in those numbers. After all, people of just those two nationalities represented the population of a small city. But the zeros were correct.
It turns out that Sharm el-Skeikh, the once unmolested and remote fishing village, now accounts for one third of Egypt’s tourism.
The realization of how busy this relatively small airport is has inevitably led to questions about the rigor not just of the security checks at Sharm el-Sheikh but of all airports that have developed rapidly and almost exclusively as a result of tourism.
“Just beyond the European Union borders are zones of great instability and danger,” Jenks points out, “as Tunis and now Sharm have shown.” (Thirty British tourists were massacred at a Tunisian beach resort in the summer by a self-proclaimed Jihadist.)
There is no global standard for airport security. Even in the U.S. the Transportation Security Administration has frequently been found wanting in tests carried out at some of our most heavily used airports, particularly exposing weaknesses at what is called “airside” on the tarmac where baggage is loaded.
If we can’t get better results after spending billions of dollars at home, it’s hypocritical to demand better of others. Indeed, sudden knee-jerk sounds of alarm on discovering that security at Sharm el-Sheikh was probably too lax should be tempered by the realization that international airport security will always be as variable in competence as the regimes that enforce it—and that outside the U.S. the growth of destination airports is unstoppable.
Take, for example, the case of Thailand. Craig Jenks drew my attention to an airline most people have never heard of, Bangkok Airways.
The airline has been single-handedly responsible for opening up some of the fastest growing destinations in Thailand. It built its own airport at Ko Samui, a ravishingly beautiful island off the east coast of Thailand. It followed that with an airport at Sukhothai Province, site of an historic landmark, the 13th century first capital city of Siam, and then, in 2003 opened another airport to serve Ko Chang, a tropical marine national park endowed with magnificent beaches, coral reefs, and rain forest.
None of these destinations is served by direct non-stop flights, but Bangkok Airways has built its business by making connections with many international carriers at Bangkok. (You could buy a ticket in Atlanta, for example, without knowing that your American carrier is a “code-sharer” with Bangkok Airways if your end point is a Thai resort.)
The only Thai resort that does have regular non-stop international flights is the country’s largest island and one of the world’s greatest sun farms, attracting tourists from every continent, Phuket.
By 2030 the Asia Pacific region will overtake both North America and Europe to become the largest aviation market, representing 32 percent of the world total. (This growth will create an unprecedented spike in the demand for airline pilots—with the region needing as many as 216,000 more pilots.)
For experts on airport security this suggests a nightmare future—an ever-growing number of airports in potentially vulnerable locations handling millions of passengers from multiple destinations (including the U.S.) with little experience of defending against random, opportunistic terrorism and without an agreed standard security regime.
So—soft targets aplenty. Even though the massacre of the innocents in Paris did not include airports, aviation remains the terrorists' number one target of choice.
It’s time to get serious.
First, there should be better guidance for travelers about countries in what Jenks rightly called “zones of instability and danger.” The tendency has been to see these dangers clearly only after event, as in Tunisia where British intelligence failed to predict a vulnerable destination.
Second, it should no longer be acceptable that there are in reality two levels of sophistication in international airport security levels: the level expected of all the major international hubs and the often more casual level encountered and accepted as the norm in smaller regional airports used by many international travelers.
Meanwhile, a lament to so many examples of paradise lost.
In the early 1960s I was visiting the small and perfectly formed Spanish city of Palma on the island of Mallorca. In those days there weren’t many tourists. General Franco was in power and the infrastructure was generally appalling which, in an ironic way, helped to inhibit tourism.
Across the bay I could see a peninsula with a few small fishing villages. The roads were, I knew, so bad that getting there by car would be a pain. I found a boatman with a small outboard-powered skiff who took me over there with my wife and we found a superb and totally unpopulated beach. We had a picnic and lingered until nearly dusk, and then puttered back across the bay—at least that was the plan.
The outboard motor puttered and then stopped. We drifted in the crepuscular beauty of the moment, not much bothered by the hiccup. Eventually the motor was re-started and we made it back.
The name of the beach was Palma Nova. Later, as Palmanova, it became the first mass-tourist development on Mallorca, and today it is notorious for the coarseness of its binge-drinking young tourists, mostly from that pale-skinned crowd who descend from the north in multitudes.