Death on the Red Sea

New York Times reporter Declan Walsh (no kin) has been writing some fascinating stories from his posting in Egypt. Last week he wrote about a murder at a Coptic monastery. This week’s installment concerns the deaths of some tourists in a Red Sea resort hotel. Be warned:

A British couple are vacationing at a Red Sea resort in Egypt with their daughter and three grandchildren. One morning, the man, a 69-year-old English builder, collapses in his hotel room in front of his wife and daughter and is pronounced dead. Hours later his wife, 64, is taken to a hospital where she, too, dies.

The Egyptian authorities insist the couple, seen in pictures as tanned, smiling and healthy-looking, have died from natural causes. But other guests at the hotel complain of upset stomachs from bad food. And their daughter, who was with them during their final hours, says she believes “something suspicious” happened.

The sudden deaths on Tuesday of John and Susan Cooper prompted their travel company to evacuate all of its guests in the hotel on Friday, amid a welter of conflicting accounts from guests, managers and Egyptian officials about what led to the couple’s demise.

Thomas Cook, one of the best-known package holiday companies in Britain, said it was evacuating its complement of 301 guests from the Steigenberger Aqua Magic Hotel in the coastal resort Hurghada as a precaution following reports of a “raised level of illness among guests.”

We like to think that travel to what we used to call exotic places is now risk-free, and that you’re equally well off in Bali, San Diego, Miami, the Seychelles, or the Levant. But that’s not necessarily true, especially in troubled places in the Middle East.

Hotel management denied that there was an unusual level of sickness, and, like Egyptian officials, insisted that the couple from Lancashire — where Ms. Cooper worked at a Thomas Cook branch — had died from natural causes. But by Friday evening, about half of the 301 guests had been flown out of Egypt, and the remainder had moved to nearby resorts, a Thomas Cook spokeswoman said.

However, about 1,600 other guests remained in the hotel, said Sally Khattab, the hotel’s marketing director. She added that the hotel had recently passed a Thomas Cook audit with flying colors.

The evacuation was a major blow to Egypt’s tourist industry which, despite a modest upswing this year, is struggling to recover from years of political turmoil, plane crashes and Islamist violence that had caused a steep drop in visitors since 2010.

Have a nice trip!