Five months ago, the tourism industry in Egypt was celebrating a record year. But today with the crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic, tourism has been decimated and is facing years before recovery.
The virus has shut down Egypt’s tourism sector, a key source of hard currency, placing considerable strain on the economy. The sector accounts for 12 to 15 per cent of the country’s GDP, and losses have been estimated at $1 billion per month as the government has suspended air traffic, closed hotels, restaurants, and cafés except delivery services, and imposed a night-time curfew.
In order to help the sector to recover, the government will begin to gradually ease the lockdown and enable hotels around Egypt to operate for domestic tourists starting on 15 May. However, guests will need to follow severe precautionary measures according to the guidelines of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
All hotels in Egypt will be allowed to open up to 25 per cent of capacity on 15 May once they fill out applications to do so and agree to comply with WHO regulations concerning laundry, beach areas, restaurants, and employees.
“Only the companies that comply with the rules will be allowed to increase their capacity to 50 per cent at the beginning of June, and those found in violation will have their licences revoked,” Khaled El-Enany, the minister of tourism and antiquities, said.
“The government isn’t factoring in the return of inbound tourism anytime soon. We are waiting for the appropriate time,” he added, saying that this would depend on international aviation, the worldwide situation of the Covid-19 pandemic, the opening of airspace, and countries exporting tourism to Egypt.
A medical certification and a special hygiene safety logo will be granted to hotels after they have committed to the requirements, including providing a clinic and a doctor at each hotel and ensuring the availability of personal protective kits and disinfection materials. Hotels must team up with the Health Ministry’s infection control department to guarantee that all the requirements are met, El-Enany said.
The hygiene safety logo shows an ancient Egyptian sun-disc symbolising Egypt’s warm climate with the three hieroglyphic signs of Ankh, Udja, and Senep, which mean life, prosperity, and health.
Guest accommodation must be registered online or at the hotel using single-use pens to check in. All luggage must be sterilised before check in and check out from hotels. Hands sanitisers should be provided in different areas of each hotel, and the temperature of guests must be measured every time they step into the hotel.
Guests should be reminded when entering and leaving restaurants and breakfast or dining rooms to clean their hands with disinfectant gel, preferably located at the entrances to the facilities.
Hotel restaurants will only offer pre-set menus, and tables will be arranged such that the distance from the back of one chair to the back of another will be more than one metre. Guests facing each other will be at least a metre apart. Family tables should not exceed six chairs, and single-use dining utensils should be used as much as possible.
A separate residential building must be provided for workers in coastal cities, who will have to undergo rapid coronavirus tests when entering resorts or hotels.
Every staff member will need to strictly comply with the basic protective measures against Covid-19 recommended by the WHO, such as hand hygiene, physical distancing, avoiding touching the eyes, nose and mouth, good respiratory hygiene, and heeding the advice to stay at home and seek medical attention if they have symptoms consistent with the disease.
A hotel floor or small building must be assigned as a quarantine area for positive or suspected coronavirus cases.
Resorts will not be permitted to host weddings or parties or to organise entertainment activities. There will be no water pipes, open buffets, spas, jacuzzis, steam rooms or massage. Gyms and restaurants will be disinfected every hour, and a higher percentage of chlorine than usual will be added to swimming pools. Only hotel residents will be allowed to use these facilities.
Many investors in tourism described the efforts to reopen domestic tourism in the county as “a kiss of life” for an industry that has been suffering as a result of the lockdowns ordered to fight the spread of the coronavirus. “It is a step towards the gradual recovery of the industry,” Kamel Abu Ali, head of the Red Sea Investors Association, said.
He said that although operating at 25 per cent capacity would not be enough to allow hotels to recoup their operating costs, it was better than nothing.
He said the health and hygiene regulations were severe and could be hard to implement, but that they were necessary in order to protect the health and safety of Egyptian citizens. “Hotels which are not 100 per cent able to meet the regulations will not receive any guests,” he said.
The return of domestic tourism under such conditions will not be profitable, Hossam Al-Shaer, head of the Egyptian Tourism Federation, said. He added that the regulations were hard, but “human wellbeing is a top priority.”
MP Soraya Al-Sheikh expressed concerns that the decision to reopen domestic tourism could increase the number of Covid-19 cases in Egypt. She suggested postponing the decision for at least a month.
According to Al-Sheikh, it would be risky to depend on public awareness of the precautionary measures and social-distancing because many people are very sociable and do not travel alone. She said she was concerned that the decision could put more burdens on the Ministry of Health, as the implementation of hygiene safety in hotels would be under its supervision.
On his Facebook page, former deputy prime minister Ziad Bahaaeddin asked the government to postpone the decision until it was clear whether the pandemic was escalating or receding.
“While I appreciate the economic and social pressures that call for the opening of hotels and employing workers, tourism differs from other economic activities in various aspects,” Bahaaeddin said.
He said that hotels receive large numbers of guests in rooms, restaurants and cafés, and this could make it hard to detect any Covid-19 cases early. This was not the case in factories, where the same groups of workers and managers came every day, making it easier to detect and isolate any cases of the virus, as well as to trace any individuals who had been in contact with them, he said.
Bahaaeddin added that it could be difficult to monitor the 25 per cent limit on hotel capacity, perhaps not in the rooms, but more probably in restaurants, cafés, and open spaces.
“I understand the economic difficulties facing hotel owners and their inability to keep workers idle indefinitely, but in tourism in particular it is imperative that the state intervene to support the maintenance of employment until things settle down because any negligence could bring a much bigger problem in the long run,” he said.
He suggested waiting until after the Eid holiday in order to have a clearer view of the situation.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly