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War Strands Ukrainian and Russian Tourists Together in Egyptian Resorts

SHARM EL SHEIKH, Egypt — The five-star resort on the shores of the Red Sea offers 20 all-you-can-eat restaurants and bars, a water park, a deluxe spa, nightly entertainment, snorkeling, sunset yoga and aqua Zumba.

In the soaring lobby, a woman in a red ball gown plays Chopin on a shining grand piano. Hordes of children march down manicured paths, brandishing plastic swords and chanting, in Russian, “I’m a pirate!”

Many of the guests are Russian. Some are Ukrainian. Most were supposed to go home days ago. But instead, they are stuck with each other.

“For me, it’s difficult to speak with Russians now,” said Yevgeni Shevchenko, 30, who arrived in Egypt from the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, with his wife and toddler three weeks ago on what was supposed to be a carefree beach holiday. Four days later, he awoke to the news that his country had been invaded.

Referring to the Russians at the resort, he said: “They also have problems, like their credit cards not working and the ruble going down. But you can’t compare them with our problems. With Ukrainian problems.”

So it went in sunny Sharm el Sheikh in the weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine last month, when thousands of tourists from both sides found themselves marooned together, unable to get home and unable to avoid one another at the breakfast buffet.

The days have been thick with tension, aggression and fear, along with the occasional moment of compassion.

Some of the Ukrainian tourists, interviewed at three resorts in Sharm, said that they had tried, and largely failed, to persuade Russians that their country had done nothing to deserve invasion. A Ukrainian man recounted seeing a Russian wearing a T-shirt with the national flag staring down a Ukrainian tourist in their hotel lobby until she burst into tears.

Ugly words have been exchanged at shopping areas across the city.

Workers said that resorts had offered free meals and other perks to coax Ukrainians and Russians into eating at separate restaurants.

The proximity flared into violence at least once two weeks ago, when the police had to be called to a hotel to separate a Russian man and a Ukrainian woman who had gotten into an altercation, according to local tourism workers. One of them was moved to another hotel.

Mr. Shevchenko was at the children’s play area when a friendly Russian tourist tried to make small talk, confiding that his credit card had stopped working after Visa, along with Mastercard, pulled out of Russia.

Mr. Shevchenko, who works in systems administration, attempted to contain his anger.

“I understand,” he recalled saying, before walking away.

When the invasion began, Ukrainian Embassy officials said that about 11,000 Ukrainians were staying in Sharm and 9,000 more in another Egyptian Red Sea resort, Hurghada. Those numbers have since dwindled as Egypt has coordinated evacuation flights to Europe. The number of Russians stuck in Egypt, though not public, was likely in the tens of thousands.

In normal times, Egypt’s beaches offer Russians and Ukrainians an all-inclusive escape from wintry climes just a few hours’ flight from Yekaterinburg, Russia, or from Kharkiv, Ukraine. Package tour operators would send several million of them to Sharm and Hurghada every year.

But the war in Ukraine was just the latest of many blows to the industry, including the 2011 Egyptian revolution; the 2015 terrorist bombing of a Russian passenger jet after it departed from Sharm, which led to a six-year ban on direct flights; and the coronavirus pandemic.

Egypt never stopped catering to Russians and Ukrainians, who once made up a third of visitors to the country and were starting to flock to Sharm again late last year. At resorts across Sharm, guests can find menus, signs and activities in Russian, which is also spoken by many Ukrainians. In the guest rooms, the TVs carry mostly Russian and Ukrainian channels.

Until two weeks ago, united by language, culture and history, the two nationalities vacationed in harmony. Then the Ukrainian channels started showing Russian forces destroying Ukrainian cities and firing on fleeing civilians, and the Russian channels started claiming that there was no war at all.

When Sergey Vysochin, 58, and Alina Vysochina, 43, found themselves unable to return home to Kamianske, Ukraine, after their honeymoon in Sharm, they tried to channel their guilt and fear into doing their part for their country’s information war.

They approached Russian tourists, they said, trying to explain what was going on. In an effort to penetrate the Russian mind-set, they occasionally flipped the channel on their room TV from Euronews to Russia-24, even though what they saw made them furious.

But the Russians they met responded like Pavel, 35, who was pushing a stroller by the sand at one resort last week as music pulsed relentlessly from the beach bar.

“Generally, I support the side of the Russian government,” said Pavel, a salesman from near Lake Baikal in Siberia who declined to give his surname, citing suspicion of American journalists. “We have to protect ourselves.”

After a while, the Vysochins gave up.

“They cannot accept our point of view,” said Ms. Vysochina, a bus company administrator who met her husband, a bus driver, at work. “We tried to explain, but it would raise conflict between us, and we don’t want to have a conflict or any trouble.”

There are some Russians who do not believe the Kremlin-backed propaganda they see on state TV.

Mike, 30, who works for a Moscow-based pharmaceutical company, said that a group of Ukrainian tourists had confronted him near the table tennis tables at his resort, pulling out their phones to show him photographs of the carnage.

“I didn’t say anything. I didn’t have any words to explain it,” he said. “I just hugged them.”

When, in Sharm, he and his wife, Anastasia, 30, saw the news about the war, they discussed leaving Russia, but decided that they could not leave their families. Protesting, as many Ukrainian tourists said that they were asking Russians to do, seemed too risky amid Russia’s deepening crackdown on dissent. They declined to give their surnames for fear of repercussions.

“But,” said Anastasia, “we hope that everything will change.”

It felt wrong, dissonant, to talk of war next to a calm, crinkled sea. The skies were not supposed to be this blue, nor the sun so bright, while agony and destruction filled the tourists’ phones.

Liza Bilozub, 28, a stylist from Kyiv, arrived in Sharm on Feb. 22. On Day 2, her toddler son got sick. On Day 3, the invasion began.

She said that she and her husband began vomiting from shock.

“It was perfect! Everything was perfect. Then I was throwing up every day,” she said. “My heart is broken every minute because our minds, our thoughts, our feelings are in Kyiv.”

Drifting through the days, the Ukrainians discovered that there was only so much time they could spend glued to the news, or scrolling in horror through social media, or crying.

They took walks. They swam. Unwillingly, they faced their futures.

Some debated where best and safest to go after Sharm: What if Russia struck further into Europe? Others discussed what they would do when they returned to Europe: Volunteer to fight? Get jobs and send money to the front?

“I still feel guilty about being here,” said Vadym Harat, an electrical engineer from Kyiv who found out that Russia had invaded his country when he landed in Sharm for what was supposed to be his 50th birthday celebration. “To just sit here like this, it’s unbelievable.”

The Egyptian government has ordered two- and three-star hotels on the Red Sea to extend Ukrainian guests’ stays for free, while more expensive resorts were told to offer special rates or transfers to cheaper lodging. That was a relief to tourists, but a blow to the hotels already hurting badly from the pandemic, which were promised government compensation of only $10 per Ukrainian guest per night.

“If you talk to Egyptians, they’re more sad than Ukrainians themselves,” said Ashraf Sherif, a sales manager for Red Sea Hotels, a chain in Sharm and Hurghada. “Because this city only has tourism.”

Russian tourists in Sharm said that they were depending on their tour operators to pay for their stays and to arrange transport home now that direct flights to Russia were suspended and their credit cards had ceased to function. Some said that their agencies had told them they were on their own.

Some travelers from both countries were looking to set up longer-term stays in Egypt, a refuge sunnier and cheaper than many other options.

Andriy Panagushyn, a Ukrainian former diplomat living in Sharm, said that he and other Ukrainian residents had been deluged with requests from compatriots looking for long-term rentals.

Many tourists were trying to make the best of their enforced vacations. The bars and clubs were full: Russians danced on one side, Ukrainians on the other.

“Our livers are suffering from lots of alcohol,” said Ruslan Yarikov, 43, an accountant from the Russian city of Norilsk, in Siberia, whose stay at a five-star resort had been extended for free. “We don’t feel the war here. We’re in vacation mode.”

But for some, it was impossible to pretend.

A few days after Russia invaded, a Ukrainian woman sat at the bar of the Ghazala Hotel, drowning her sorrows. The only other customer there besides Mr. Sherif, who recounted the scene, was a Russian teenager, bopping around the dance floor.

The Ukrainian asked the Russian, “Are you having a good time?”

Hearing her Ukrainian accent, the teenager froze. He looked at her. Slowly, Mr. Sherif said, he gave her a salute.

After a moment, the woman saluted back.

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