Egypt, still in turmoil, loses billions as tourists stay away

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 21, 2011 

CAIRO — Egyptian tourism officials say the country had lost more than $2.6 billion by the end of June because of the upheaval surrounding former President Hosni Mubarak's resignation and ongoing protests against the interim military government.

The Tourism Ministry says a lack of security and reports of violence topped the reasons that tourists canceled trips to Egypt this year or chose other countries in which to spend their holidays.

Hotel and tour operators say it isn't just Americans and Europeans who are forgoing trips to Egypt. The capital, Cairo, known as "sin city" to Persian Gulf Arabs, isn't swarming with oil-rich visitors for the first time since 1997, when an attack by Islamist militants on a busload of tourists who were visiting the ancient southern city of Luxor left 58 foreigners dead and caused a sharp decline in tourism.

"This summer season, which is considered a high season for Arab tourism, is totally destroyed," said Ghada Abdel Khalek, the marketing director at the Marriott Cairo Hotel, a favorite among well-heeled tourists.

Tourists "have other options, countries that are politically stable and they view as safer than Egypt," he said. "Our branches in Turkey, London and Paris are fully booked."

Tourism was a $12.5 billion industry for Egypt last year, with the Great Pyramids, Luxor and other attractions drawing millions of visitors. But at the beginning in January of the violent revolution that toppled Mubarak's regime, 1 million tourists fled the country in just three days.

Officials had hoped that Mubarak's resignation in February would restore stability to the biggest country in the Middle East. But thousands of protesters, impatient with the reforms enacted by the ruling military, have returned to the streets of Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt, occasionally clashing with soldiers.

Since the revolution, when police disappeared from the streets, there's been no sign of an active police force. Residents of Cairo report an increase in crime, even in usually safe, upscale neighborhoods.

Tourism officials say that hotels on the Red Sea, a popular summertime vacation spot far removed from the unrest, are operating only at about 40 to 45 percent of capacity. In Cairo, the figure is barely 35 percent.

"Tourists are afraid of the instability, and it's hard for them to understand that what happens in Cairo and major political centers is not affecting other tourist destinations," said Hisham Za'zou, the deputy tourism minister.

One recent afternoon, at a multimillion-dollar tourist bazaar adjacent to the Pyramids in Giza, south of Cairo, only two foreigners were browsing at an antiques shop that sells replicas of Pharaonic masks, jewelry and other pieces from the famed Egyptian Museum.

"Those are the only customers we received in May, June and the first half of July," complained Ahmed Ali, a co-owner of the shop.

"The police force has to start fully operating. No tourist will come to Egypt if they hear of crimes, bloody confrontations between police and protesters, and different forms of political instability."

The Tourism Ministry has asked the ruling military council to approve a measure that exempts some incoming tourists from having to obtain tourist visas, in order "to encourage them to visit Egypt," Za'zou said. He declined to specify which nationalities would be exempted under the measure, which is still under consideration.

At the same time, some foreigners who live in Egypt say the government has denied dozens of tourist-visa extensions in recent weeks as immigration officials try to crack down on "resident tourists," foreigners who live and work in the country while on tourist visas, in violation of immigration laws.

The immigration department also has been roiled with problems. It's part of the Interior Ministry, which is undergoing a major reorganization as it lays off hundreds of officials in response to public anger over the killings of protesters by police during the revolution.

Dropping prices at hotels and other tourist facilities failed to bring back many of the visitors who fled. Tourism officials said it wasn't a matter of price, it was the general instability.

"Offering such discounts is actually harmful to the business. It will be very difficult to bring the prices back to normal," said Abdel Khalek, of the Cairo Marriott.

The political uncertainty doesn't figure to end soon: The military council said this week that the first post-revolution parliamentary elections wouldn't be in September as scheduled, but that it would announce the date for the elections by that time.

Ali, the antiques shop owner, said: "We don't expect any real tourism before next winter, after a government comes into office and a president is elected."

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2011

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