Thu, Feb 13, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Egypt’s tourism industry struggling to recover from civil unrest

Even tranquil resorts far from hotspots in Cairo and northern Sinai suffered after Western governments issued travel warnings following Morsi’s overthrow

By Patrick Kingsley  /  The Guardian, HURGHADA, Egypt

“I want you to understand that on a one-to-one basis, Egyptians are welcoming you,” Zaazou said.

In general, hoteliers and officials want to portray the industry as on the road to recovery and the subject of renewed investment. The industry has unveiled £500 million worth of investment in six new hotels, Red Sea marinas and entertainment complexes. Direct flights to Luxor are scheduled to resume from London and Paris in the spring. A replica of Tutankhamun’s tomb is being constructed at Luxor, in an attempt to preserve the original once crowds pick up again. Egypt’s leading hotelier and one of the country’s richest men, Samih Sawiris, has resumed plans to turn his Red Sea resort, Gouna, into one of the world’s first carbon-neutral towns.

However, while room occupancy is slowly rising across Egypt, it is still well short of 2010 levels. Cairo’s hotels were only 20 percent full in January, compared with 80 percent four years ago, according to the federation. Luxor’s are at 12 to 14 percent, down from 60 to 65 percent in January 2010. Resorts in Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada were 85 percent full at the beginning of 2010. Now they stand at 40 percent and 55 percent respectively, even at half price. Soccer at Cairo’s pyramids last month was a sixth of what it was four years ago, Egypt’s antiquities minister said.

“It will pick up, though not in the near future,” Elzayat said, adding that a return to a full inbound flight schedule was crucial.

Direct flights to Luxor are a start, but according to his calculations planes flying into Cairo are still carrying 19,000 fewer passengers every week than in 2010. It is often said that Egypt’s attractions — its pyramids, beaches, and year-round sun — are too much of a draw to be ignored by tourists for extended periods.

Elzayat said Egypt’s tourism industry had never before taken as long to recover as now — even after the 1997 attack.

“What happened in 1997, with the killing of the tourists in the temple, was just a single event,” Elzayat said. “Then it just took one year to recuperate — but this time it’s been three years.”

Sawiris is building two new hotels — although he said that this was out of patriotism and not a reflection of investor confidence.

“The mess that took place in the last few years is scaring the hell out of everybody,” the billionaire said. “Until [the government] gets its act together, nobody will put a penny in.”

Egypt needs to learn from countries that have maintained a strong tourism industry amid a tense political climate, said Eric Monkaba, owner of the boutique travel company Backpacker Concierge.

“You need to compare to Kenya, where people are literally throwing grenades at tourists,” Monkaba said. “Almost nothing has happened to tourists in Egypt. So why is Kenya different? I think it’s because they’re talking to the public clearly. I don’t think it’s wise to promote this idyllic setting when there’s obviously civil strife going on. Consumers aren’t stupid. You can’t just put pretty pictures in front of people. There needs to be a conversation, some owning up about what is going on. When I talk to my clients, I emphasize how localized the situation is.”

Tourists who have braved Egypt in recent months encourage others to follow.

“We’d definitely recommend it,” said Ralph Lee, a Briton who visited several areas of Egypt with his family at the height of tensions in August last year.

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