After three months of home confinement on the back of the outbreak of the coronavirus, many local holidaymakers took off during the Eid holiday to Egypt’s seaside resorts and hotels.
Since mid-May, the government has enabled hotels around Egypt, especially those in the coastal governorates, to operate for domestic tourists, with 25 per cent occupancy rates extended to 50 per cent since the beginning of June.
The hotels and resorts first need to obtain a hygiene safety certificate issued by the ministries of tourism and antiquities and health and population and the Egyptian Hotels Association to meet health and safety requirements put in place by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Over the past few weeks, up to 155 hotels and resorts in the governorates of South Sinai, the Red Sea, Alexandria, Suez, Greater Cairo, Qena and Luxor, Aswan and Marsa Matrouh have qualified for the certificates and received guests during the holidays.
The move has come as part of the country’s efforts to restore the tourism industry, one of Egypt’s key sources of hard currency, which has been significantly affected by the coronavirus outbreak.
Abdel-Fattah Al-Assi, assistant to the tourism and antiquities minister, told Al-Ahram Weekly that average occupancy rates during the Eid holiday at hotels in South Sinai had reached eight per cent. In Suez’s Ain Sokhna, occupancy rates were at the maximum of 25 per cent and the same was true for Alexandria.
On the North Coast and in the Marsa Matrouh governorate, occupancy rates reached only four per cent, and in Greater Cairo they were at nine per cent.
Hossam Al-Shaer, chairman of the Egyptian Travel Agents Association, told the Weekly that local holidaymakers had accepted the health and hygiene regulations applied in hotels, seeing them as guaranteeing their safety during their stay.
He described the opening of hotels for domestic tourism as a very successful experience and an initial step towards reopening inbound tourism. “The efficient implementation of the regulations in hotels will encourage foreign tourists to come to Egypt,” Al-Shaer said.
“Operating hotels with 25 per cent occupancy was a good start towards the gradual recovery of the tourism industry, although this will not recover the hotels’ operating costs,” said Abdel-Hamid Abu Youssef, CEO of Orascom Development Egypt.
He added that it was necessary to begin with reduced occupancy rates in order to discover any problems that could arise during the application of the new regulations.
Abu Youssef described the experience as successful and the best solution to begin with. “Our hotels have reached the maximum permitted occupancy rates, and we did not face any problems. All the guests respected the regulations and the staff operated perfectly,” he said.
“It is a warm-up for international tourism,” Alaa Akel, CEO of the JAZ Hotel Group, told the Weekly, describing the reopening of hotels in coastal cities for domestic tourism. He said the regulations issued by the ministry of tourism and antiquities in accordance with the guidelines of the World Health Organisation (WHO) had been a positive step and had helped to evaluate the experience.
Akel said that June was a low season for domestic tourism, but he was optimistic that it would improve and possibly peak in July and August.
He also hoped that with several international tourism companies having announced their willingness to operate trips to Egypt soon, the government could soon reopen the country to international tourism and remove the suspension of air traffic to Egypt after the imposition of hygiene and safety guidelines.
“I am sure international tourism will recover gradually until we get to the winter season starting in November,” Akel said. However, he said there was a danger that when Egypt reopens its inbound tourism, foreign vacationers will still not be able to travel because they could be suffering economically. Some of them may have lost their jobs or seen cuts to their salaries, for example.
Egypt’s first guests after the reopening may be retired people whose incomes have not been affected by the coronavirus. “Inbound international tourism will not fully recuperate until the global economy recovers, but this will come gradually,” Akel added.
He said the opening of hotels for local tourism was an opportunity to find out how best to operate within the new safety measures. For example, the suspension of open buffets and introducing pre-set menus was not very practical for hotels with an average of 400-room capacity.
“It has been impossible to serve all the guests properly during breakfast and dinner times,” Akel said. He suggested that open buffets could be organised with restrictions, such as serving pre-prepared dishes at tables, to solve such problems. Controlling the number of guests in and out of the buffet areas was another idea that could be introduced.
Several tourist resorts have confirmed that they will be submitting requests to the Egyptian Hotels Association to reinstate the buffet system for guests, while taking the necessary procedures for spacing in restaurants.
Mohamed Al-Shabouri, manager of the Coral Sea Imperial Sensatori in Sharm El-Sheikh, has decided to keep his hotel closed to tourists despite having received the health and hygiene certificate.
He explained that the operation of the hotel was very costly, and operating it at 25 or 50 per cent capacity would cost more than closing it down. He said that his hotel had met all the health requirements and was ready to welcome inbound international tourists or receive local guests when full capacity was permitted.
Ahmed Ali, a teacher who spent his holidays in Hurghada, said that he had felt as safe as if he had been at home. Guests were reminded when entering and leaving the restaurant, breakfast, or dining room to disinfect their hands with sanitisers located at the entrances.
Tables were arranged such that the distance from the back of one chair to the back of another was more than one metre and guests also faced each other from a distance of at least one metre. Family tables did not exceed six chairs, and single-use dining utensils were used.
The ministry is in the process of outlining new regulations for restaurants, cafés, museums, and archaeological sites as well as beaches and desert activities such as safaris and windsurfing in order to ready these for their reopening after the relevant cabinet decisions.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly