Egyptian tourism sector ravaged by political unrest

Karim Hafez and Dalia Farouq, Tuesday 29 Jan 2013

Egypt's tourism sector hit hard by wave of violence in the capital Cairo and other cities, although most touristic sites remain trouble-free

Egyptian tourism
Protesters burned a riot police vehicle in the vicinity of Intercontinental Semiramis hotel in downtown Cairo (Photo: Reuters)

The tourism sector has been hit hard by the current wave of violence across Egypt, with hotel occupancy rates hitting a record low and tourists fleeing the country.

As clashes reached their climax on Monday night in Cairo’s downtown, masked assailants stormed the lobby of the Semiramis Intercontinental hotel.

The recent wave of anti-Brotherhood protests that began on the second anniversary of Egypt's revolution has had a detrimental effect on tourism. Downtown Cairo, famous for its upscale Nile view hotels, has been the worst affected.

As fighting reached the Garden City Corniche area near Tahrir Square, the interior ministry asked the management of three nearby hotels to take safety precautions.

The Intercontinental Semiramis and Shepheard hotels on one side of Tahrir Square, and the Hilton Ramsis overlooking Abdel-Moneim Riad Square, were asked to seal and barricade their entrances and halt all unnecessary hotel operations, such as opening restaurants to the public.

“We received clear orders from Qasr-El-Nil police station to barricade our guest entrances as well as to reduce staff to below normal levels when clashes began on Thursday night,” a security guard at Intercontinental Semiramis told Ahram Online.

The Semiramis is one of Cairo’s oldest and most expensive hotels, known for its luxurious restaurants; during the clashes it has been surrounded by clouds of teargas and its entrance slopes a refuge for protesters.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday, the Intercontinental Semiramis is under attack, please convey our distress message to the ministry of interior,” frightened hotel staff Tweeted via the hotel account at around 11pm Monday.

The hotel cancelled all bookings and halted future reservations. As security circumstances deteriorated, dozens of guests checked out in the early hours of Tuesday.

All guests were evacuated safely from the building, stated Mahfouz Aly, head assistant to the tourism minister. Aly added that they would be compensated for any psychological damage they may have suffered.

Occupancy rates at hotels in downtown Cairo area are at critical levels, with most tourists leaving before the revolution’s second anniversary on Friday.

“Since the beginning of the clashes on Friday our hotel reached a zero occupancy rate, which hasn’t occurred since the 18-day uprising," Ahmed Labib, executive official at Shepheard Hotel told Ahram Online.

"Unfortunately the current security situation gives a very bad image of Egypt’s tourism industry. This month, our revenues dropped by more than half.”

The Red Sea and other tourist areas, such as the historic centres of Luxor and Aswan, have also been affected by the political impasse, despite being far from any violence.

“Occupancy rates have dropped by almost 40 per cent since 2010 and revenues have declined by almost 60 per cent. Hotels in the Taba area are unable to cover their monthly costs. Adding to all that the security situation in the Sinai is highly unstable,” said Tareq Rehan, former general manager of Taba Heights Red Sea resort.

“This has been almost tourist-free in Taba and other Red Sea resorts,” Rehan explained.
Luxor and Aswan, considered major touristic hubs, have seen signs of recovery since the January 2011 popular uprising, but the current political impasse brought the cities back to square one.

“The tourism sector has been battered by the successive waves of unrest; however, the sector showed small signs of recovery by the end of 2012,” Mohamed Fathy, owner of Visit Egypt travel agency, told Ahram Online.

“Because of the current situation, foreigners have cancelled their bookings. Half the famous Nile cruises are simply not operational. The government needs to protect strategic industries such as tourism; they have to understand that without proper security it is simply not viable,” asserted Fathy.

President Mohamed Morsi pledged at the beginning of his term in August to guarantee security for tourists.

One of the main pillars of the president's presidential programme was to expand the tourism sector and attract tourists from around the world.

The ministry of tourism says the fall in the tourism, which accounts for 11 per cent of the Egyptian economy, since the revolution, has worsened the country’s public debt levels and is a main cause of the foreign currency crisis and the fall in reserves.

“I am very despondent about the situation in Egypt. It is impossible to attract tourists and touristic investment into the country with the security situation deteriorating to this extent,” said Elhamy El-Zayat, the head of Egypt's Federation of Tourism Chambers.

El-Zayat estimates occupancy rates to have reached a record-low rate of 15 per cent in Cairo, 50 per cent on the Red Sea coast and less than 5 per cent in Luxor and Aswan; the worst since the 2011 popular uprising.

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