Egypt’s tourism industry is battling to recover from what Egyptian Minister of Tourism Hisham Zaazou has described as its “worst year in modern history,” after millions of tourists were put off visiting Egyptian resorts and heritage sites last year by reports of civil unrest.
The industry made ￡3.6 billion (US$5.9 billion) last year, compared with a record ￡7.7 billion in 2010, before the uprising that toppled then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and led to three years of political instability.
Only 9.5 million tourists stayed in Egypt’s hotels last year, compared with 14.7 million in 2010, Zaazou said.
“You’re talking about ghost cities,” Zaazou said.
Some of Egypt’s most famous tourist towns had their worst month in September last year.
“We were almost [at] zero [tourists] in some areas of Egypt — 1 percent [hotel occupancy] in Luxor, 0 percent in Abu Simbel, 0 percent in Aswan on some days. Here on the Red Sea, it was a bit better — but I’m talking about 10, 15, 20 percent. It was very bad. In modern history, in the years following our peak year of 2010, it was the worst year,” Zaazou said.
On some days, there were only a handful of visitors to Luxor’s Valley of the Kings, where Tutankhamun is buried, and where several thousand tourists would queue on a good day in 2010. During the worst trough, no more than five tourist ships operated on the Nile out of a fleet of about 250. Up to 165 hotels closed temporarily owing to lack of custom in July and August last year, Egyptian tourism federation head Elhamy Elzayat said.
In a country where officials say tourism provides 12.5 percent of employment and 11.3 percent of GDP, the effect has been brutal for many Egyptians. In Luxor in December, the local government gave food handouts to families who make their living from giving carriage rides to tourists.
“They had to choose between feeding their families and feeding their horses,” Elzayat said.
The industry suffered during 2011 and 2012, as tourists stayed clear of a country that had swung from crisis to crisis after Mubarak’s removal. However, numbers fell off entirely between July and November last year after Western governments issued warnings against travel to most areas following the overthrow of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. Media reports of unrest from hotspots in Cairo and northern Sinai appeared to put tourists off even the tranquil holiday resorts hundreds of kilometers away on the Red Sea, and in Luxor and Aswan.
Tourism workers say visitors’ fears are largely unfounded.
“If you go back over the past three years, most of the tourist cities were under control like this one. It was safe and sound,” Zaazou said in an interview near Hurghada, a Red Sea resort.
Though extremists killed dozens of tourists in Luxor in 1997, today’s militants have not attacked any foreigners, he added.
“What you have seen in Egypt so far is an Egyptian-Egyptian issue,” Zaazou said. “It’s not an Egyptian-foreigner issue, it’s not an Egyptian-tourist issue.”
Government supporters often express heightened nationalist rhetoric on television, with one pro-regime ex-MP last month threatening to slaughter Americans in the street.
However, Zaazou said such sentiment was just bluster, and aimed at Western governments — perceived to still back Morsi — rather than tourists.