20 January 2012

Egyptian frustration as tourists stay away

954540707.jpgTourism sees 32% drop in visitors as ongoing street violence hits vital industry


A tourist walks in front of the Sphinx and Great Pyramid at Giza, Egypt, last year, during which revenue from tourism fell by £2.5bn. Photograph: Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters/Reuters

At the main hall in Cairo's International Conference Centre, the organisers had pulled out all the stops. Suited waiters scurried about with canapés, pyramids of baked treats were stacked up on trestle tables, while dignitaries shook hands fervently in front of snapping cameras. For several hours the only thing missing was the guest of honour – though given the event's title, it was perhaps no surprise that Egypt's tourism minister felt little pressure to appear on time.

When Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour did finally show up at this government-sponsored celebration of "last year's tourism achievements", his keynote speech offered little comfort to the industry figures who had gathered to discover just how bad the past 12 months had been – and what the fragile and protest-battered military government was planning to do about it. Since revolution erupted on 25 January 2011, Egypt's tourism sector – which had been generating more than £8bn a year and was believed to employ one in eight of the workforce – has been decimated.

The upshot, revealed Abdel Nour on Saturday, has been a £2.5bn decrease fall in tourism revenue alongside 32% fewer visitors, with the capital – which has played host to most of the street fighting in recent months – taking the brunt. "We are living through an unprecedented crisis in the history of this sector," said the minister, a long-time liberal political grandee. "We have faced tourism crises before following one-off events [such as the 1997 Luxor massacre in which terrorists shot dead 62 holidaymakers at an ancient Egyptian temple], but this is different because [the revolution] is a continuous state of affairs."

Industry insiders believe the reality is worse than official claims. On Monday it emerged that officials have included Libyans fleeing war and Palestinians from Gaza taking advantage of relaxed border controls at Rafah in the tourist tally. Some experts say the actual decrease in holidaymakers is closer to 50%, though the ministry denies any discrepancies.

Twelve miles away, on the other side of the Nile, the impact of those figures is clearly evident. The long approach to Giza's pyramids, usually crammed with trinket-sellers and unofficial tour guides, is now largely empty; taxi drivers who work in the area say that whereas they used to ferry around dozens of foreigners a day, they are now lucky to see one a week. In Mena House, a five-star hotel near the Great Pyramid and where staff now appear to outnumber guests in the foyer by about five to one, assistant director Tarek Lotfy said that the past year had been exceptionally tough.

"We've seen a drastic drop in bookings, and those declining visitor numbers don't even begin to tell the full story of what's happening here," he told the Guardian. "With supply far outstripping demand, everybody is forced to drop prices and compete aggressively for business. That means average revenue per tourist drops as well and, as a result, a huge range of industries – from farms, to retail shops, to factories – are affected. I can show you milk plants which are operating at 10% of their capacity because orders from hotels and cruise ships have dried up."

It is not just security problems that have got tour operators worried, not to mention the millions of Egyptians whose incomes depend indirectly on tourist money. The first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections have swept political Islamists into office with an overwhelming majority; 70% of seats in the legislature look set to be occupied by the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist al-Nour party. The latter has mooted the possibility of new restrictions on alcohol sales and bikinis on beaches, a move which many believe would deal an irrecoverable blow to Egypt's reputation as a major tourist destination.

The suggestion has drawn a sharp response from across the political spectrum, where leaders have calculated that there is little public appetite for a restrictive cultural agenda that could add more uncertainty to an already precarious economic situation. Last week, a former grand imam of al-Azhar, the highest seat of learning in Sunni Islam, dismissed al-Nour's comments as "ignorant and lacking [in] responsibility", while the Muslim Brotherhood – which, with just under half the total seats, will be the biggest parliamentary force – has promised to defend the tourism industry. "No citizen who makes a living from this field should be concerned," said Essam al-Erian, vice-president of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party.

For its part, al-Nour has now rowed back from its original stance, insisting that its own objections to beer and flesh are not a top policy priority. "Maybe 20,000 out of 80 million Egyptians drink alcohol," said a party spokesperson recently, with evident irritation. "Forty million don't have sanitary water. Do you think that, in parliament, I'll busy myself with people who don't have water, or people who get drunk?"

That has not stopped those in the industry from viewing the conservative Salafists with deep mistrust; the movement's weakest electoral performance was in tourism-heavy areas such as Sinai and the Red Sea, and Abdel Nour was preaching to the choir when he turned his ire at the conference on those who seek to clamp down on public behaviour. "If you hear any politician saying something of this sort, check back later to see if he is still in office," the 66-year-old minister said to rapturous applause. "Such a person will be brought to account by democracy."

Lotfy speaks for many when he blames the ongoing security crisis on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took power following the fall of Hosni Mubarak but has since dragged its feet on genuine democratic reform and has become a target for pro-change revolutionaries. But Lotfy is optimistic that, in the medium-term, the street violence will diminish and tourists will return in greater numbers, particularly after a new president is elected in June and the tourist season starts in September.

"Egypt is an incredibly powerful tourist destination; for cultural, religious, ecological and leisure reasons, it attracts all kinds of people from all over the world," he said. "Despite the huge upheaval of the past year, millions of visitors still chose to come here, and that's a testament to the assets we have as a country. Every schoolchild in the world learns about the pyramids; I'm confident people will still want to come and see them for themselves."

The Grand Egyptian Museum

Egypt's Grand Egyptian Museum, one of most ambitious cultural projects in the country's history, has entered its third and final stage of construction and is on course to open in 2015.

The £500m project, which will comprise a state of the art set of exhibition halls and conservation centres on a desert plateau overlooking the Giza pyramids, is designed to replace the existing flagship museum on the corner of downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square. Government officials claim it will provide 15,000 jobs and bring in millions in tourist revenue; the transfer of several thousand ancient artefacts to the new building is already under way.

But the Gem has not met with universal approval, with many critics questioning why, in a country battling a severe economic deficit and where 44% of the population lives below the poverty line, so many resources should be dedicated to a single museum. Others argue that the location of the new museum – far from the city centre and highly securitised – will serve to further disenfranchise Egyptians from their own heritage, which some believe is instead being packaged up as an exclusively touristic commodity.

 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/

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