News Column

The tourist desert - Egyptians desperate to woo back visitors after years of unrest: Minister says 2013 was 'worst in modern history' Hotels empty as 5m fewer people visit than in 2010

February 11, 2014

Patrick Kingsley Hurghada

"The stunning, colossal monuments of Ancient Egypt never fail to astonish," promises Egypt's official tourism site. "The heat, sight and the light of the desert invigorate. The cool, turquoise waters rejuvenate." With a wealth of heritage sites, not to mention the great weather and Red Sea resorts, Egypt has never been a hard sell - until now.

Egypt's tourism minister, Hisham Zaazou, has described 2013 as the country's worst year in modern history, after millions of tourists were put off visiting by reports of civil unrest. The industry made pounds 3.6bn in 2013, compared with pounds 7.7bn in its record year of 2010, before the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak and led to three years of political instability. Only 9.5 million tourists stayed in Egypt's hotels in 2013, against 14.7 million in 2010.

"You're talking about ghost cities," said Zaazou. Some of Egypt's most famous tourist towns had their worst month in September. "It was very bad. In modern history, in the years following our peak year of 2010, it was the worst year."

On some days, there were only a handful of visitors to Luxor's Valley of the Kings. 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 last July and August, according to Elhamy Elzayat,head of the Egyptian tourism federation.

In a country where officials say tourism provides 12.5% of employment, and 11.3% 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," said Elzayat.

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. But numbers fell off entirely between July and November 2013 after western governments issued warnings against travel to most areas following the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi. Media reports of unrest in Cairo and northern Sinai appeared to put tourists off even the tranquil resorts hundreds of miles 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," said Zaazou, interviewed near Hurghada, a Red Sea resort.

Though extremists killed dozens of tourists in Luxor in 1997, today's militants have not attacked any foreigners, Zaazou stressed. "What you have seen in Egypt so far is an Egyptian-Egyptian issue," he 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 threatening to slaughter Americans in the street in January. But 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," said Zaazou. 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 pounds 500m 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.

But while room occupancy is slowly rising across Egypt, it is still well short of 2010 levels. Cairo's hotels were only 20% full in January, compared with 80% four years ago, according to the federation. Luxor's are at 12-14%, down from 60-65% in January 2010. Resorts in Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada were 85% full at the beginning of 2010. Now they stand at 40% and 55%, respectively, even at half price.

"It will pick up, though not in the near future," said Elzayat, 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.

But 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," said Elzayat. "Then it just took one year to recuperate - but this time it's been three years."

Billionaire Samih 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," said Monkaba. "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.

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 with his family at the height of tensions last August.

"Even in Cairo, the tension was quite localised. 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."


A guide looks for tourists to take on a ride round the pyramids at Giza. In Luxor, food was given to carriage operators who had to choose between feeding families or their horses. Below, good times at the Temple of Hatshepsut near Luxor Photograph: Fayez Nureldene

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Source: Guardian (UK)

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