Security fears damage tourism in Egypt

Deya Abaza, Monday 4 Feb 2013

US and European governments issue increasingly stern warnings about travel to Egypt due to ongoing political unrest and street clashes

Tourists
Tourists ride on camels as they visit the Pyramids of Giza in Cairo (photo: Reuters)

Foreign tourism to Egypt, especially from Europe and North America, has dipped further due to political unrest and street protests since the anniversary of the January 25 Revolution.

Foreign governments have been advising their nationals to exercise increasing caution when travelling to Egypt, and to avoid large crowds and demonstrations.

But most of the warnings actually pertain to the deteriorating security situation over the past two years, not the political unrest.

Lack of road security, a decaying railway system, rising crime, sexual harassment, and lawlessness in Sinai and the regions bordering Libya and Sudan, carry the sternest warnings.

The latest guidelines by US and European governments say travel to Greater Cairo, Alexandria, and the main tourist hubs of Luxor and Aswan in Upper Egypt, is relatively safe as long as people avoid protests.

However, France, Germany and the UK advise against all travel to North Sinai, and non-essential travel to South Sinai, including to St Catherine’s Monastery. The warning excludes the coastal resorts of Sharm El-Sheikh, Dahab, Nuweiba, and Taba, though it does advise against overnight travel between the resorts.

North Sinai was subject to Egyptian military intervention in August 2012 after months of escalating lawlessness near the Egypt-Israel border. South Sinai witnessed a series of tourist kidnappings by Bedouin tribes in 2012, often on the roads, though none turned deadly.

Other areas considered off limits by Germany and France are the desert regions bordering Libya and Sudan. France also warns against non-essential travel to Fayoum, Beni Suef, Minya, Assiut, Sohag and Qena.

Overland travel across Egypt is deemed unsafe by US and EU governments. The US State Department issued a security message following the deadly 14 January train crash in Badrashin, Giza. It prohibited its personnel from travelling by train until further notice and advised American travellers against it.

The UK also notes the frequency of train accidents in Egypt in recent years. Germany advises against cross-country land travel, urging its nationals to fly whenever possible. British and Italian foreign ministry websites cite an increase in road accidents to dissuade nationals from extensive road travel inside Egypt. In September 2012, official CAPMAS statistics showed 20 Egyptians die in traffic accidents every day.

A number of governments warn their nationals of a rise in the crime rate since Egypt's revolution in January 2011. They cite a rise in petty crime, such as purse-snatching, but also more serious instances of armed robbery.

Sexual harassment against women is also a recurring concern. The US embassy has received an increasing number of reports of women being sexually groped in taxis and public places. The UK cites an increase in sexual harassment on public transportation, but also in places traditionally considered safe, such as hotels. All governments warn women to exercise great vigilance when travelling alone.

Hotel occupancy rates have reached record lows since clashes over the constitution in December 2012, as well as the unrest since 25 January. Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan have been hardest hit.

Adel Zaki, head of the Foreign Tourism Committee at the Egyptian Travel Agents Association (ETAA), estimates hotel occupancy  rates in Cairo over Christmas and New Years Eve, usually peak season, were between 10 and 15 per cent.

Only 40 to 45 out of 270 to 280 cruises between Luxor and Aswan were operational during this period, he added.

The attack on the Semiramis InterContinental Hotel in downtown Cairo on 28 January dealt a further blow to tourism. Amid violent protests nearby, hotel staff were forced to evacuate guests without the police, which failed to respond to their calls for help for hours.

This incident, according to Zaki, provided further proof that "the country is not in control of its security," an impression which poses the greatest obstacle to foreign tourism.

Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou is currently on a Europe-wide tour to bolster tourism to Egypt. In January, the minister said 2012 saw a 17 per cent rise in tourists, and a 13 per cent rise in tourism revenues. However, tourist numbers are 22 per cent lower than in 2010, and they generate 25 per cent less revenues.

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