Egypt’s tourism industry has been dealt a series of heavy blows in recent years. The latest was the Covid-19 outbreak, which resulted in the country freezing its inbound and outbound commercial flights between March and July.
Tourism receipts dropped 11.4 per cent in the first quarter of 2020 followed by a painful 90 per cent decline in the second quarter.
While the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) offered Egypt its Safe Travel Stamp designed to enable travellers to identify destinations and businesses that adopt the WTTC’s hygiene and safe travel protocols, the sector is still suffering from a host of challenges.
Bassem Halaqa, chairman of the Tourism Syndicate, spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly about the problems facing workers in Egypt’s tourism sector.
Who are the members of the Tourism Syndicate?
The syndicate accepts the membership of workers in hotels, tourism companies, authorities, and restaurants. Graduates and undergraduates of tourism and hotel schools, institutes, and faculties, even those who have graduated and have not found a job, are still affiliated to the syndicate. When they land a job, they move up in the ranks in the syndicate. Tour guides, however, belong to the Tourist Guide Syndicate.
Does the syndicate take part in drafting relevant laws?
The syndicate participates in hearings in the House of Representatives to offer its opinions regarding projects and laws concerning the tourism sector, just as was the case in parliament’s Manpower Committee when discussions were held about the Syndicate Law 213/2017.
It continuously communicates with its members in order to remain active. We also try as much as we can to communicate with the government through the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Manpower to support sector workers who have lost their jobs.
What are the problems facing syndicate members?
The main problem is that tourism workers lose their jobs at times of crises. The sector has been dealt several blows since 2011 and up until the recent coronavirus outbreak. The syndicate contacts businessmen and tourism chambers nationwide to try to find other jobs for workers, even at half their previous salaries, should they lose their jobs so that they are able to support their families.
Another major problem is that the banks have stopped giving loans to workers in the tourism industry. Syndicate members need these loans to pay their children’s school fees, for example. Some members have not been able to pay loan instalments, and the syndicate is negotiating with the banks to reschedule the debts or put off instalments in order to avoid the banks taking legal measures against members.
One recent problem is that according to the law, a 12 per cent tax is added to customers’ bills in return for the service they receive. The syndicate has signed an agreement for the redistribution of this 12 per cent tax in hotels and restaurants. The percentage is currently divided into five per cent to cover waste or broken materials, five per cent deposited in a crisis response fund, and 90 per cent distributed among workers, whether they come in direct contact with customers or work in administrative offices.
While some hotels have adhered to the agreement, others have not under the pretext of the successive crises that have hit the sector. Some hotels pay the tax to workers in the form of salaries, which is against the law and the agreement. The syndicate will contact hotel and tourist facilities once more in the near future to solve this problem.
What are the solutions the syndicate has proposed for the post-coronavirus period?
Tourism workers in Egypt are not covered by health insurance, putting themselves at risk when the family breadwinner loses his job. We hope that tourism workers will be covered by the government’s new health insurance system by, for example, deducting a part of their salaries. This will be a much-needed development, especially because the tourism sector is fragile and is easily affected by world developments and sector workers are prone to salary deductions at any time.
The syndicate has also proposed the establishment of a fellowship fund for workers in the sector, for which its decision 4/2020 was issued. The fund will collect monthly amounts from syndicate members to be disbursed back at times of crises. Syndicate members proposed that the monthly contribution be deducted as a percentage from their salaries, while I suggested that they pay LE100 or LE200 on a monthly basis. We are waiting for the next General Assembly to convene to come up with a final decision regarding the fund.
Do you think tourism officials fairly estimate the value of tourism workers in Egypt?
Many syndicate members are highly qualified and experienced. However, they may abandon the sector at times of crises to try to support their families by other means because they can’t find adequate support from the tourism sector. This results in huge losses for the industry. Tourism is one of the main sources of foreign currency for Egypt, and it contributes to the appreciation of the pound against other currencies.
This is why it is crucial for tourism workers to have representatives who participate with decision-makers in meetings at the Tourism Ministry. The fact of the matter is that the ministry invites representatives of tourism chambers to meetings and ignores the workers. I believe decisions made regarding the tourism sector ought to be discussed with businessmen in the sector, representatives of workers, and representatives of tourism chambers. After all, it is the workers who implement those decisions.
What are the courses the syndicate offers?
There are training courses for tour operators on organising itineraries, travel programmes, and pricing tours. There is also training on booking flights and hotel rooms, ticketing, receiving groups at airports, and everything related to the hajj and omra pilgrimages.
Each syndicate member receives a training course and an accredited certificate. The syndicate has signed a protocol with a number of faculties and institutes for their professors of tourism and hotels to give these courses.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly