Egypt has started to catch its breath after the slump that befell its tourism sector during the restrictions put in place to halt the spread of the coronavirus, with tourist flights returning to the Red Sea resorts of Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada last week.
However, it is still too early to determine whether this vital sector for Egypt’s economy will see a complete revival by the end of the year or in 2021 or when a coronavirus vaccine or effective treatment is developed.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused global economic paralysis, particularly in tourism, said Sameh Saad, head of the Misr Travel Company, a tour-operator in Egypt. Even with Egypt opening up its air space to receive flights from across the world, changing flight regulations makes it difficult for the sector to stabilise.
“Egypt’s cultural tourism was the hardest hit. And European tourists, first on the list of travellers to Egypt, have also been hit economically due to the lockdowns in their countries that affected their financial ability to travel,” Saad said.
Although the Eastern European countries have given the green light to their citizens to travel to Egypt, some countries in Western Europe are still placing Egypt on their red list, he added.
Since Egypt began receiving international flights at the beginning of the month, the numbers of tourists, and their spending, had been meagre in comparison to the country’s tourist capacity, he said, adding that while Hurghada had 187,000 hotel beds it was currently receiving only about 5,000 vacationers per week.
Egypt is depending on domestic tourism to revive the sector for the moment, though this form of travel is unlikely to restore the market, particularly as a result of the economic impacts of the coronavirus on many would-be travellers.
The tourism sector was unlikely to go back to its former glory unless a coronavirus vaccine or effective treatment is developed and made available to the public the world over, Saad said. Some travellers may also be unwilling to wear face masks for four-hour flights, even if they overcome their fears of renewed travelling, he added.
Travel overall is expected to plummet by 60 to 80 per cent, according to optimistic and pessimistic forecasts released by the World Tourism Organisation (WTO), said Elhami Al-Zayat, a former chairman of the Federation of Egyptian Chambers of Tourism. This means that about 600,000 people will travel over this year, down from the 1.5 billion who travelled last year.
The majority of travellers arrive in Egypt by air, with the air-travel sector having lost an estimated $84 billion on a global scale this year and the airline industry as a whole an estimated $2 trillion. Airline companies predict that air transport will revive by 20 per cent this year, but will only revive to 2019 figures after three or four years, Al-Zayat said.
The WTO had said people with the ability to travel this year were mostly those whose annual incomes exceeded $120,000, Al-Zayat stated, which means that far fewer people will be able to travel. Such travellers are also less likely to be attracted to the beach tourism offered at Egypt’s Red Sea resorts, he added, though they were more likely to be attracted by cultural tourism.
This meant that Egypt should promote its cultural destinations more, such as the National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation, the Grand Egyptian Museum, due to open next year, and the destinations of Luxor and Aswan, he added. These should be promoted online at modest prices to attract tourists, especially from Latin America and Canada whose nationals have high rates of travel.
A number of Luxor and Aswan hotels have applied for and received the government’s health and safety certificate designed to guarantee infection-control measures, but no floating hotel has done so because their owners expect cultural tourism to remain depressed until Easter 2021, Al-Zayat said.
Some 52 per cent of Egypt’s hotels have applied for the health and safety certificate, Saad noted.
Egypt’s ministries of tourism and health have put out a set of regulations for hotels wanting to obtain the certificate. They include replacing open buffets with set menus, allowing a maximum of two under-12 aged children in a hotel room with their parents, and banning people from outside hotels entering restaurants and gyms. Hotels are also not allowed to exceed 50 per cent of capacity.
Al-Zayat expects Egypt to recover much of its tourism next year, pointing out that travellers from Belarus, Ukraine, and Italy should arrive earlier than other vacationers.
After the resumption of flights from Belarus on 1 July, Egypt has received 12 flights from the Eastern European country, 12 to Sharm El-Sheikh and 11 to Hurghada. Ukraine has sent 41 flights to the South Sinai and Red Sea governorates, including 24 to Sharm El-Sheikh and 14 to Hurghada, according to figures released by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.
While encouraging, these figures were not enough to fill hotels to 50 per cent capacity or generate revenues for hotel owners, Al-Zayat said.
In 2019, Egypt made unprecedented revenues from tourism, generating some $13 billion for the economy and breaking the 2010 record of $12.5 billion. Estimates put the number of tourists who visited Egypt in 2019 at around 13 million.
Hisham Al-Shaer, a member of the Chamber of Hotel Establishments, believes the Ukrainian and Belarus markets have returned to Egypt. Some Swiss flights had arrived in Hurghada, he said, adding that Egypt should receive other tourists in October, especially when European countries like Germany and the UK allow their nationals to travel.
Kamel Abu Ali, head of the Red Sea Investors Association and a member of the delegation that visited Belarus and Ukraine with Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El-Anany earlier this week, said the minister’s visits had encouraged tourism to Egypt.
He added that El-Anany was preparing a set of decisions that would reflect positively on the tourism sector.
Abu Ali said Egypt’s tourism sector would see a breath of fresh air in September, noting that the July figures had been better than expected and that the return of the German market would encourage other Western European countries to follow suit.
The overhaul of the road network, the restoration of tourist sites such as Ain Al-Sira and Al-Muizz Street in Cairo, and the focus on museums and antiquities would all help Egypt regain its tourists, he said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly