Egyptians await tourism’s return

By Dina Zayed  /  Reuters, ASWAN, EGYPT

Sun, Oct 23, 2011 - Page 11

The newly launched Al-Hambra cruise ship sailed only twice on the Nile before former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was toppled in February. It has been docked since then on the banks of the river, its plush fittings gathering dust.

Aswan, site of majestic pharaonic ruins and one of the most famous stops on Egypt’s Nile cruises, has few of the tourists who normally throng its tree-lined river banks. Instead, dozens of ships are moored waiting for customers.

Of the more than 300 cruise liners usually touring this section of the world’s longest river, part of a tourist industry that is a major source of revenue in Egypt, not more than 40 are still setting sail, operators said.

“I’m keeping the boat open just to pay salaries, but not to make profit,” said Albert Zakaria, manager of a cruise operator.

Like many, Zakaria accepts he has to pay the bills and salaries even without revenues, so as to be ready once tourists return. He is not sure when that will be.

Tourist numbers have plummeted, dealing a blow to the millions of Egyptians whose livelihoods depend on the 14 million or more visitors who once came to Egypt annually, providing one in eight jobs in a country beset by high unemployment.

The number of tourists visiting Egypt dropped by more than a third in the second quarter of this year compared to last year. Some 2.2 million people visited Egypt in the second quarter of this year, down from 3.5 million in the same period last year.

Some tourists are returning, but many canceled after 25 people were killed in a fresh burst of violence in Cairo, when Christians protesting about an attack on a church near Aswan clashed with police.

Tourism is Egypt’s top foreign currency earner, accounting for over a tenth of GDP. The Tourism Ministry has said most arrivals now head to beach destinations.

The hotel occupancy rate in Aswan is now about 15 percent while cruise ships are at 30 percent, said Abdel Nasser Saber, head of the Tour Guide’s Syndicate of Aswan. They would normally expect to be full.

The tourism sector has been suffering since the uprising that ousted Mubarak in February, with brief months of relative relief, but matters won’t improve, residents in Aswan say, until Egypt is stable and finished with its transition.

“This is a stark improvement from before. There have been long months when there was no one at all. Any clashes and spilled blood is going to keep the state of tourism like this,” he said. “We have to take the effort to calm potential tourists and get these elections over and done with.”

Egyptian Tourism Minister Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour said in April he saw a rebound by the last quarter of the year, even if it still meant a 25 percent fall in revenues from last year.

However, that would be if there were no disruptions. Labor strikes and frequent protests are not popular here.

“People have to calm down and let the country regain its strength. Our economy is collapsing and if we keep going like this, we will have nothing — no state — left to fight for,” said Bahaa Rabiey Mohamed, a 26-year-old salesman in Aswan’s empty bazaar, where he now gets little or no business.

Ayman Tahano, a 42-year-old working with a free traders association for the Aswan bazaar, echoed the sentiment: “All these protests for pay hikes are absurd. They are taking all the money the government has and without working for it. They waited 30 years — can’t they wait six more months?”