Egypt: Enduring appeal

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There are signs that Egypt’s tourism industry may be set to recover far more quickly than expected from the two months of political turmoil and protests that brought the country’s economy to a near standstill. Visitor numbers are starting to climb, although any rebound will of course be dependent on a prolonged period of stability.

One of the first victims of the unrest that ultimately saw the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak was the tourism sector, which is crucial to the economy, contributing 11.5% of GDP and providing jobs directly or indirectly for one in seven working Egyptians. In 2010 tourism brought $13bn into the economy, thanks to the 14.2m overseas visitors that came through passport control.

Though it may be unable to match last year’s figures, there is cause for optimism that the tourism industry will post just a few months of poor results following the political upheaval, rather than 12. While Egypt received only a fraction of the 1.2m visitors it would welcome in a normal February, with arrivals down by 80%, it seems that the age-old appeal of the land of the pharaohs is reasserting itself.

According to TUI Germany, the German branch of TUI Travel, Europe’s largest tour operator, summer bookings to Egypt are down just 22% year-on-year, a remarkable performance considering the events of the past two months.

Volker Boettcher, the chief executive of TUI Germany, says that while there was a fall in reservations for holidays to Egypt, this could turn around later in the year when the confidence of travellers in Egypt as a destination returns. “I think we will have weeks near the end of the summer season when bookings reach the level of the previous year,” he told the Reuters news agency on March 8.

For Mounir Abdel Nour, Egypt’s newly appointed tourism minister, the recovery is already under way. “We have been hit very badly but I am confident that before the end of March we will be on track again,” he said on March 10, while attending the ITB travel fair in Berlin. “Charter planes are landing in Hurghada and Sharm El Sheikh. Hotel occupancy is increasing. We believe that the situation is bouncing back quicker than we thought.”

Though tourism may be rebounding, the government plans to act to give it an extra push. “We are determined to do whatever it takes to regain the confidence of travellers,” Nour said. “We will advertise, communicate, visit and give incentives.”

The new administration is cautiously confident that the economy will overcome the effects of the first two months of the year, with the recently appointed finance minister, Samir Radwan, predicting on March 11 that GDP will expand by 3% in the financial year ending June 30. Though down on the 6% forecast previously, even the lower growth rate will likely be better than those of some of its neighbours in the region.

Egypt is doing all it can to rebuild confidence and promote itself, even marketing its people-powered revolution, a move that Taleb Rifai, the secretary-general of the UN World Tourism Organisation, says will add to the traditional appeal of the country as an international destination. “People go to Egypt to see many places – the Pyramids, Luxor, the Red Sea – and now they are adding Tahrir Square. It has become something for them to admire,” he said, while attending the Berlin event.

Rifai also believes Egypt will bounce back quickly, with any impact on tourism in the country and the wider Middle East being what he describes as “immediate term”, with the situation set to improve soon. “With regard to Egypt, the high season is October, November and December,” he said. “We will have to monitor how it unfolds in other parts of the Middle East.”

There may still be some unfolding to be done in Egypt itself that could pothole the sector’s road to recovery, however. Though Tahrir Square has become a symbol of Egypt’s democratic movement, it also continues to be the scene of protests and the occasional clash between supporters of the old regime and those pushing for an acceleration of the reform process. Images of ongoing unrest will do little to help Egypt re-establish its position as a leading tourism destination.

That said, the ancient land of Egypt is living proof that all things pass. While Mediterranean rivals in the sun-and-sand segment may lure some visitors who would otherwise have made Egypt their destination of choice this season, the early signs are that the attractions that have long made the country a world leader in tourism will again work their charm.

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