2017 has been kind to Egypt’s tourism sector, which began to recover this year when compared to last year.
According to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), around 5.9 million tourists visited Egypt during the first nine months of 2017, already an improvement on 2016 which saw only 5.4 million tourists throughout the year.
Despite the leap in numbers, these figures remain below the benchmark for 2010 when over 14.5 million tourists visited Egypt, bringing in around $12.5 billion in revenue. Egypt hopes the number of tourists will reach eight million in the whole of 2017, and tourist revenues should hit $6 billion, up from $3.4 billion in 2016.
The tourism sector has been hard hit since Russia and the UK banned flights to Sharm El-Sheikh following the October 2015 crash of a Russian airplane. The Sinai beach resort hosts about 30 per cent of Egypt’s tourists, and most are citizens of the UK or Russia. Egypt received around three million Russian tourists in 2014.
To overcome the loss in incoming tourists from these two major markets, a lot of work has been carried out to attract tourists from other destinations such as the Ukraine, where the Red Sea is a favourite destination, said Emad Farid, board member and head of the Tourism and Aviation Committee at the British-Egyptian Business Association (BEBA).
Hard work has also been done to develop non-traditional markets like the Far East, including China. The efforts have resulted in the doubling of incoming tourist figures from China, but the numbers remain below those received from traditional markets like Russia, Farid said.
“In 2018 we can only go up,” he said. “But the big bang will be with the return of Russian and British tourism.” Farid is hopeful that Russian flights to Egypt will return by February next year, as was promised by Russian President Vladimir Putin during his visit to Egypt on 11 December.
The sector has not yet been able to benefit as much as it might have done from the floatation of the Egyptian pound that took place in November 2016. “We will only feel the benefit of the floatation when tourists from our main markets return,” Farid said. The depreciation of the currency renders a tourist destination more attractive because it means visitors get more value for their money.
Praising efforts to market Egypt as a tourist destination, Farid stressed that there was no point in spending more on marketing in markets where flights to Egypt are banned. However, “that does not mean that we should do nothing,” he said.
He suggested marketing locations within Egypt not subject to flight bans. He also supported the idea of indirect marketing, whereby bloggers, travel writers or travel programmes are encouraged to come to Egypt to write about it. “This is a good way to create a buzz about Egypt,” he said.
It is also the only way that foreigners can see for themselves that what they might see in the media about terrorism in Egypt is totally misleading, Farid said. He remembered a time when some foreign tourists would worry about coming to Egypt because of the war in Iraq, although Iraq is farther away from Egypt than the UK.
Such misconceptions can be dispelled when people see for themselves the situation on the ground, he said. The strategy can also be even more effective than inviting celebrities to visit Egypt.
Over the past year, several such celebrities have visited Egypt, including US actor Will Smith and Barcelona football player Lionel Messi. Hollywood stars Nicolas Cage, Hilary Swank and Adrian Brody also took part in the recent 39th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival.
Farid is not greatly worried about the effects of terrorism on Egypt’s tourism market. Terrorist attacks in Egypt had only taken place in a few contained locations, and terrorism unfortunately had become a plague for many countries worldwide, he said.
“Nowhere has been spared from terrorism,” he said. “We cannot let terrorism stop us. The only way to beat it is to continue to encourage people to come.”
Looking forward, Farid wants to see a vision developed by the Egyptian Junior Businessmen’s Association (EJB), of which he is a former board member, come to life.
This vision, designed in 2007 and looking forward to 2030, aims to create an international agenda or calendar of events to promote Egypt internationally. This would mean that every day there would be an event somewhere in Egypt that could be marketed abroad to attract tourists.
“This would not mean that we would do away with traditional tourism,” he said, pointing to events like the opera Aida which was performed in 1994 against the backdrop of the Deir Al-Bahari and Hatshepsut Temples on the West Bank of the Nile in Luxor. This should be a regular annual exercise that opera lovers would book ahead to see, he said.
In order for a similar calendar of events to be set up elsewhere in Egypt, every governor, authority and ministry should submit events, whether cultural, sporting or of other kinds, to a central agenda. This should then be promoted by the government, with NGOs standing by to help with sponsors and marketing, Farid said.
To avoid volatility in the industry, the case in recent years when terrorist threats could affect incoming tourism, there needed to be changes in ways of thinking about tourism, he said. “It should not be all about the tourist resort model,” he said. Other types of tourist facility should be made more available.
In areas such as the Suez Canal Special Economic Zone there needed to be more quality hotels for people coming to do business in the area, for example. These should cater to various audiences, however, and they did not need to be all five-star business hotels.
Farid also stressed the need for the wider development of tourist destinations and not simply the creation of resorts. Cities should have other services that tourists can enjoy, such as restaurants or amusement parks, as well as various essential services. Another area that needed to be better marketed was tourist real estate, as there was a growing market for second homes in Egypt among foreign buyers, he said.
Working on the mindset of the society as a whole was another way of developing Egypt’s potential as a tourist destination. The EJB hopes to launch a campaign called “I Work in Tourism”, which will illustrate how every industry in Egypt is in fact already working in or benefiting from tourism.
“A small farmer planting tomatoes is indirectly working in the tourism sector,” Farid said, by growing food that can be sold to visitors. The campaign will make people realise the importance of this sector to their livelihoods, encouraging them to do their best for tourists.
A final issue that needed attention was staff-training, Farid said. Existing educational facilities only train 15 per cent of the industry’s needs for trained staff, he added.
“Once the industry picks up again, this could be problematic,” as there was a need to provide well-trained blue-collar staff for the industry and not just university graduates, he said. He pointed to an initiative run by the EJB called Eshtaghal, or “Work”, that is aimed specifically at providing training to prepare young graduates for the job market.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly