Sun, May 25, 2014 - Page 14 News List

Egypt’s dying tourism industry looks to new leader for revival

By Sarah Benhaida  /  AFP, SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt

European tourists no longer jostle on hotel dance floors and many sunbeds on the pristine beaches of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt lie empty, but although business at the Red Sea resort is languishing, there are hopes that a new leader will restore stability and create the confidence that will bring the tourists back.

If the ubiquitous campaign posters are anything to go by, former Egyptian Armed Forces commander-in-chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi is the favorite to win next week’s presidential election — posters of his rival, leftist Egyptian Popular Current leader Hamdeen Sabbahi, are nowhere to be seen.

Al-Sisi overthrew former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in July last year, unleashing the bloodiest period in the country’s recent history, and now pledges to bring order and revive the economy.

Tourism revenues, already hurt by the 2011 uprising that overthrew former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, fell from US$12.5 billion in 2010 to US$5.8 billion last year.

Al-Sisi’s support campaign in Sharm el-Sheikh is coordinated by a former intelligence officer who now works in tourism, while hotel manager Gina el-Gafy works the phones to organize a pro-al-Sisi rally in the evenings, while supervising more than 200 hotel workers.

“We need stability, especially in Sinai, and that would happen sooner if the army takes control,” she said, referring to the peninsula where Sharm el-Sheikh is located.

While south Sinai is dotted with resorts, the lawless north is a base for militants who have launched attacks across the country, mostly targeting policemen and soldiers.

In February, a suicide bomber struck a bus carrying South Korean tourists in the south Sinai resort town of Taba. The attack further scared off tourists and left an industry that had employed about 4 million people at its peak scrounging.

Despite such attacks, Egyptian Minister of Tourism Hisham Zazou said that media coverage of the unrest has given “a negative message and is overblown.”

“Most incidents of violence are within university grounds,” he said of the regular pro-Morsi student protesters’ clashes with police. “All tourist destinations in Egypt are quite safe and sound.”

At a Sharm el-Sheikh now crawling with uniformed and plain-clothes police officers, tourists say they feel safe.

“There’s nothing to fear,” a British tourist who identified herself as Kim said as she sat in a Bedouin-themed cafe.

Yet others are not as sanguine and el-Gafy has furloughed part of her team for lack of work. Even though she has dropped her room rates by 20 percent, occupancy is still only at 60 to 70 percent.

While the large hotels have managed to scrape by, the crisis is hitting the smaller enterprises hardest.

Mostafa el-Menufi, 40, said he could no longer afford to feed his family on what he makes from a small store that sells water pipes.

“We used to earn good money in Sharm el-Sheikh. Now I earn less and the rent stays as it is,” he said.

El-Menufi said he trusted a strong candidate from the military for president to help bring back the tourists.

The owner of a Bedouin cafe down the road, who refused to give his name, disagreed.

The police, untrammeled under Mubarak, are now returning to their old ways and “it will be worse” under al-Sisi, the cafe owner said.

Yet this is a trade-off many other Egyptians are willing to make: the freedoms promised by the 2011 uprising for an end to the tumult it has ushered in.

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