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

Thu, Feb 13, 2014 - Page 9

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.

“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.

“Even in Cairo, the tension was quite localized. We had good guides who knew what they were doing. They said the trouble in Tahrir Square is always in the afternoon, so we went at 8am,” Lee said.

The emptiness of the sites added to the appeal, Lee said.

“Frankly speaking, traveling with young children, it was great we didn’t have to stand in queues. There were only 10 people in the Valley of the Kings, and very few people in the Egyptian Museum. There was no queue at all at Tutankhamun’s tomb. It beats standing for an hour in a queue with a nine-year-old boy,” he said.