Come Back to Egypt

As Egypt observed the one-year anniversary of its revolution, one inventory item  weighed heavily: Egypt’s tourism rates dropped by 28.5 percent in January, the country’s tourism officials told Al-Masry Al-Youm/Egypt Independent on Friday. According to the same source, the decline in Egypt’s second largest industry began during the first week of the January 25th uprising, when 1 million tourists fled the country—at an estimated loss of $1 billion.

Since then, tourism authorities and industry have worked to reverse the trend with creative campaigns. Inspired by awakened sentiments of patriotism, concerned Egyptians turned to Facebook and called on fellow citizens to sponsor and boost local tourism. And attempts have also been made to use the revolution as a tourist attraction.

In “Sightseeing During the Egyptian Revolution” travel writer David McKay Wilson chronicles his September 2011 tour of Egypt’s classic routes. Squired by Academic Travel Abroad, an agency specializing in cultural travel, Wilson and journalist friends dined on the Nile at the invitation of the Egypt Tourist Authority. The official host told Wilson’s group that tourist visits were down by 46 percent since the January uprising. In the wake of an attack on Israeli’s Cairo embassy on September 10, the official was questioned about matters of safety: “How can I say that it’s safe when something like that happens?” he questioned back.

However, as Wilson also noted, the shortage of visitors improves the chance of securing free escorts by armed tourism police—as offered to his group—and he is reassuring about his own sense of safety throughout the trip, from the streets of Giza after dark, to the crowded streets of downtown Cairo.

Giza at dusk.

Still, the threat of anarchy is a present and discussed danger, and the Egyptian government has acknowledged the impact of recurrent outbreaks of violence on tourism rates. Other concurrent factors haven’t helped: the NGO crisis, growing instability in the region—Syria, Iran-Israel tensions—as well as changes in relations with Mubarak’s old friends—Saudi Arabia, Israel. In fact, the decline in tourism rates originated primarily from Israel, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait. Topping the toll on an industry that employs over 2.5 million people (1-in-8 Egyptians workers), the climate of instability also promotes the exodus of capital from the country and slows the flow of foreign currency to the nation’s treasury.

The concerns of tourism authorities and industry are echoed by Egypt’s citizens. Shortly after Wilson’s sightseeing tour, a poll by the Charney Research for the International Peace Institute asked Egyptians whether they saw necessity or disruption in continued protests, “’ at time when Egypt needs stability and economic recovery”; 53 percent to 35 percent of respondents wanted to focus on economic recovery.

With an estimated 15 million Egyptians depending on the tourism sector, it is no surprise that many begin to weigh the cost of the revolution. “For the Egyptian tourism industry, freedom’s just another word for no one’s here to sight see,” wrote Wilson. Or, as a camel-tour businessman from Iza told the The New York Times, “The revolution was beautiful, but no one imagined the consequences.” The sharp decline of visitors and his loss of income had forced him to sell three-of-five animals to the butcher, and his horse buggies sat idling by, for days at a time.

While other sources of income held steady—Suez Canal, gas and oil, remittances from Egyptians working abroad—according to the same NYT article, and the Central Bank, tourism went from a record 15 million visitors in 2010 to a 42 percent drop and loss of $3 billion through September of 2011. And though authorities have also attempted to tap the allure of “sightseeing during the revolution,” Amr Elezabi, the chairman of the Egyptian Tourism Authority, told the New York Times, “You cannot sell Egypt throughTahrir Square.” At any rate,Tahrir Square alone could not make up for such staggering losses, and the ongoing instability and potential for violence detours the way to more marketable and profitable sites.

Revolutions, “they are processes, not events,” as Wael Ghonim, another voice of the Egypt’s awakening, told NPR earlier this year. And elections don’t settle differences and tensions–not in emerging democracies or established ones. As revolutionary dust begins to settle, even the right price of freedom is subject to debate, as expressed by these statements quoted in the NYT article, “Euphoria Turns to Discontent as Egypt’s Revolution Stalls”: “We are ready to live on dates and water for our freedom!” said a young protester. “If you want water and dates, fine, eat that yourself,” replied a business man. “Most of those who took part in the revolution were satisfied with the fall of Mubarak,” said a Coptic female pediatrician. The “wavering of public opinion” in the wake of the revolution is well documented in a February 2011 report by the International Crisis Group, and so is the evidence that such diverging sentiments will live on.

Where tourism is concerned, the ruling Freedom and Justice Party has sought to quell public and industry fears (Egypt Independent). Meeting with the Union for Tourism in January, party leader Mohamed Morsy said that the FJC’s vision for developing the sector would require security, and political and economic support. As reassurance, he named God-given advantages that make the country an inevitable tourist destination: history, culture, weather, etc. But he also stressed that tourism is one of three main areas of concern, along with politics and the economy, and that Islamic law would inform all legislation, namely the writing of the nation’s constitution. As the article points out, secular Egypt fears that the infusion of Sharia in the constitution will impact minorities and impose religion-based changes to economic activities like tourism. “Tourism does not mean nudity and drunkenness. We Egyptians are the greatest religious people, and we don’t need that. We’ll prohibit alcohol,” a Muslim Brotherhood leader said at a December rally.

While the constitution is being drafted, in February the Ministry of Tourism announced a series of new incentives aimed at recovering 12-13 million visitors this year, and an estimated $11 billion in revenues (Egypt Independent, via Reuters). The campaign is heavily targeted at Emirati visitors and hopes to attract 1,500,000 tourists from the Gulf region. On the subject of safety, Samy Mahmoud, a ministry official said that 75 percent of tourist arrivals in Egypt head for sites outside Cairo—S-harm el-Sheikh, Hurghada and Marsa Alam—which he termed “very safe.” “By the end of June we’ll have a president and a strong government. This will boost tourism inEgypt,” Mahmoud added.

Hurghada Coral Reef.

But not all potential for violence and safety issues are, or can be, clearly tied to the revolution: a woman gunned down in rich Cairo neighborhood, a wave of car-jackings, soccer game turned deadly, armed gangs, etc.  And so it is that in the second half of February there was an intense police campaign to address the country’s greatest security challenges: escaped prisoners (during the ousting of Mubarak), former convicts and unregistered criminals. According to the Interior Ministry, the escalation of security forces resulted in a 60 percent improvement, and increased police presence will continue in the short-term.

With that reassuring news, we return to sightseeing with Mr. Wilson:

The Egyptian tourism destinations, meanwhile, were refreshingly uncrowded, as we traveled to the tombs at Saqqara, the Great Pyramid in Giza, and to Al-Azhar Park out by the university, where lovers strolled hand-in-hand as the mournful call to prayer echoed from nearby mosques. Here there wasn’t a hint of danger. Security was everywhere…

Al Azhar Park