Egyptian tourism sector eyes brighter future

Ahram Online, Saturday 26 Mar 2011

Summer bookings show marked dip but analysts predict upswing for year-end

One person not enjoying having the Pyramids to himself (Photo: Reuters)

Standing amongst the placard-wielding crowds demanding justice and political reform in central Cairo they made for an unusual sight. Crowned with Pharaoh headdresses and wrapped in rustic robes, the hundred-strong group at yesterday's demonstrations had quite different demands. Chanting slogans in support of the revolution, they called for their compatriots to treat foreign tourists with respect.

It was neither a floorshow of ancient Egyptian folklore nor a demonstration of traditional hospitality -– livelihoods are at stake as the tourist trade struggles to revive.

Tourism is crucial to Egypt's economy; responsible for 11.5 per cent of GDP, it provides direct or indirect employment for one in seven working Egyptians. Last year the country hosted 14.2 million overseas visitors feeding an estimated US$13 billion into the economy.

The unrest of January and February was a body blow for hotels, tour companies, shopkeepers and airlines alike. During his brief bout as vice president, Omar Suleiman claimed one million tourists had fled Egypt due to unrest, costing the economy US$1bn.

Egypt's airline industry reported losses of $170m for the same period, while worldwide airlines cancelled almost a third of their Cairo-bound flights between 11 January and 11 March. Carriers still operating were forced to alter flight times to match the military-imposed curfew.

Meanwhile, eye-witness reports from recent European visitors to Egypt's normally buzzing resorts paint a bleak picture. London's Sunday Times last week quoted returned holidaymakers talking of deserted beaches, empty restaurants and hotel occupancy rates of just 10 per cent. Some 30 to 40 hotels in the Red Sea hotspot of Sharm El-Sheikh were said to have closed, with others shut for 'refurbishment'.

Cultural tourism seems to have fared marginally better, with independent foreign travellers among the pioneers. Although the Egyptian Tourist Authority has no confirmed statistics for recent tourist arrivals, a manager at the Pyramids information centre told the UK's Independent newspaper that the site currently sees around 300 foreign visitors per day. At its pre-Revolution height, Egypt's most famous landmarks were thronged with 4,000 daily sightseers.

Hopes are pinned on a swift recovery, despite ongoing political uncertainty and sporadic low-level violence.

Mounir Abdel Nour, Egypt's recently-appointed Minister of Tourism has claimed the recovery is already underway. "We have been hit very badly but I am confident that before the end of March we will be on track again," he said while attending a Berlin travel fair earlier this month.

“Charter planes are landing in Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh. Hotel occupancy is increasing. We believe that the situation is bouncing back quicker than we thought.”

Recent statements from the German branch of TUI, Europe's largest tour operator, seemed to back this up with claims that summer bookings to Egypt were down 22 per cent year-on-year -- an unexpectedly small dip, they claimed.

Volker Boettcher, TUI Germany's chief executive, predicted an upswing later in the year when traveller confidence returns. "I think we will have weeks near the end of the summer season when bookings reach the level of the previous year,” he told Reuters recently.

Taleb Rifai, secretary-general of the UN World Tourism Organisation, agreed. “With regard to Egypt, the high season is October, November and December,” he said. “We will have to monitor how it unfolds in other parts of the Middle East.”

Another obstacle to recovery may come from flailing tour operators specializing in Egypt but based in major western markets. The collapse of the UK's African Safari Club, a Nile-cruise specialist, has led industry experts to warn of further troubles for smaller tourist enterprises. For the most part, however, more established tour companies anticipate a severe dent in Egypt-based earnings but for actual visitor numbers to eventually recover.

Over-cautious travel advice from western governments may also restrict visitor numbers, claim some tour operators. Britain's Foreign Office removed travel warnings about Egypt in early March, reversing its advice against all non-essential visits and sparking increased bookings. The US State Department and Russia's Foreign Office, however, still caution against tourist visits.

As well as having formerly tourist-clogged ancient sites to themselves, intrepid tourists may also benefit from a raft of cut-price deals.

Travel pundits Frommers said that Sunnyland Tours, which operates the most extensive list of Egypt trips from the US, is restarting key tours to Cairo and Upper Egypt this month, slashing prices by half in a bid to fill charter flights.

UK web-booker Travelzoo said they expected "great deals" for Sharm and Red Sea resorts. "This is an opportunity for people to experience luxury resorts for less than they would ordinarily pay," said managing director Joel Brandon-Bravo.

There's also the small matter of a worldwide famous attraction that didn't exist before the revolution. Previously a traffic-choked intersection plagued by touts and agencies promising tours to far-off oases and resorts, Tahrir Square has itself become a must-see.

Literature from major tour operators even promises travellers a hotel 'close to Tahrir' and the opportunity to visit during their busy itineraries.

“It has become something for [tourists] to admire,” says Rifai.

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