Following a turbulent period from 2011 to 2016 the Egyptian tourism sector has experienced consistent growth. Efforts aimed at diversifying source markets, improving safety and conducting successful marketing campaigns are continuing to pay dividends. As a result, Egypt witnessed double-digit growth in international travellers in both 2017 and 2018 from a broad range of countries.
Record visitor numbers were posted in 2010, with a high of 14.7m visitors, bringing in $12.5bn in revenue. The number fell to 9.8m in 2011 as the country was grappling with protests that resulted in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the former president. Five years later, international arrivals fell to 5.4m visitors in 2016 after international governments announced travel bans following the 2015 downing of a Russian aircraft. Rapid growth in 2017 saw arrivals increase by 53.7% to 8.3m, and in the years since the tourism sector has continued to make great progress. In 2018 visitor arrivals increased further, to 11.6m, according to the Egyptian Tourism Federation (ETF).
Egypt witnessed significant growth in tourism revenue during 2017, albeit from a low 2016 base. Total tourism revenue increased by 123.5% to reach $7.6bn compared to $3.4bn in 2016. In 2018 the UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) ranked the country the world’s fastest-growing tourist destination, with an increase in visitors of 55.1%, providing optimism about prospects for a full recovery. However numbers have yet to be restored to pre-2011 levels.
The tourism industry has attracted LE59.6bn ($3.3bn) of capital investment during 2017, and that figure was expected to rise by 6.8% to LE63.6bn ($3.6bn) in 2018, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC). The organisation is expecting to observe capital investment on specific assets within the tourism sector to nearly double to LE113.3bn ($6.4bn) in 2028 in real 2017 price terms.
The growth of the tourism sector over recent years has been a significant driver of the Egyptian economy overall. The total contribution of tourism to GDP was 11% in 2017, and according to the WTTC, this increased slightly in 2018 to 11.9%, equal to LE528.7bn ($29.7bn). The sector brought in LE218.1bn ($12.3bn) in visitor spending and accounted for 27.3% of total exports. Improvement in the tourism sector was among the factors that prompted Standard & Poor’s to raise the country’s sovereign credit rating by one notch to “B” in May 2018, and also provided incentive to the IMF to give the country a favourable short-term outlook for the economy in September 2018.
The tourism sector is also an important generator of foreign currency reserves, with the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) noting the sector contributed 12% of total reserves in FY 2014/15. At the end of 2015, a rapid decline in visitors in the wake of insecurity in the Sinai Peninsula would prove to be a setback as visitors and their wallets shied away. In December 2018 foreign currency reserves measured $42.6bn, down from $44.5bn the month before and marking the first drop since October 2016 – a month before the currency was floated as part of an IMF deal to attract foreign investors. The pre-flotation of the pound has had a positive impact on tourism, since the cost of travelling around Egypt fell for foreign visitors and raised expectations that more international tourists would bring more foreign currency. Despite a slight improvement against the dollar in March 2017, the pound’s relative price remained below 50% of its pre-flotation value, helping Egypt maintain its position as an affordable destination. This sentiment was reflected in Lonely Planet’s announcement that the southern Nile Valley, including the classic destinations of Luxor and Aswan, as well as temples at Esna, Edfu and Kom Ombo, was voted the world’s best value destination in 2019.
Rania Al Mashat was appointed minister of tourism in early 2018 amid optimism that the sector would bounce back stronger than before. The strategy for the sector under Al Mashat has included the establishment of a more efficient administrative framework, increased marketing efforts to improve Egypt’s image abroad and a heightened focus on human development. As part of efforts to improve efficiency, the Egyptian government introduced an e-visa system in June 2018 for 46 countries from key source markets such as Russia, the UK, Spain, Italy, Japan and Canada. Citizens of several Middle Eastern countries, as well as those from China, were granted visa-free entry. Previously, visitors had to purchase visas at an Egyptian foreign mission or upon arrival, leading to unfavourable congestion at the airport.
Following the downing of the Russian plane in 2015, the government has worked hard to improve security measures to make sure visitors were safe during their travels. That year Egypt passed an inspection by the International Civil Aviation Organisation conducted by inspectors from Dutch, Emirati, Italian and Russian airlines. Egyptian government authorities also installed x-ray machines and security scanners in all tourist sites, and implemented heightened security presence including checkpoints near tourist sites and hotels. Improvements in security and stability have been essential drivers of growth.
Egypt’s hospitality segment more broadly has been on an upswing in recent years, with average revenue per available room (RevPAR) increasing by 42% in 2018 on the back of increased average daily rates and high occupancy due to meetings, incentives, conventions and events activities, according to Canadian-based global commercial real estate services organisation Colliers International. “The year 2018 was the beginning of an upwards cycle, the effects of which will be felt across the tourism and hospitality sectors over the next few years as occupancies rise along with average daily rates,” Ibrahim El Missiri, CEO of Somabay, told OBG.
RevPAR in Cairo rose 9% in 2018. Growth was reported in other cities as well, including Sharm El Sheikh, with an increase of 12%; Hurghada, with an increase of 13%; and Alexandria, with an increase of 10%. Occupancy rates were also high, at 77% in Cairo, 68% in Hurghada and 81% in Alexandria. The higher occupancy rates were driven by the resumption of flights between Russia and Egypt; arrivals from diversified source markets such as India, China and the Middle East; and more robust security measures. An increase in RevPAR growth is expected to continue, with Colliers forecasting average RevPAR will increase by 11% in 2019. The firm also expects expansion of supply in the Egyptian hotel market, at 2% a year between 2019 and 2021.
While individual cities across Egypt experienced growth, occupancy rates remained low along the Red Sea amid negative perceptions of security. Nevertheless, occupancy rates are on the rise in the region. Occupancy rates in the Red Sea region went from 30.8% in January 2017 to 45.5% in January 2018. Despite the initial lag in performance, the region improved in the latter months of 2018; 505,710 tourists visited during the month of July 2018 alone, resulting in an overall occupancy rate of 74%. Higher occupancy that month was driven by Hurghada, with an occupancy rate of 73.3%; Marsa Alam, with 73.6%; and Safaga, at 78%. These areas, on the Red Sea’s eastern coast, have been attracting visitors from Germany and the UK, and are diversifying Egypt’s eastern tourism destinations away from Sharm El Sheikh, according to UK travel agency Thomas Cook.
The hotel market in Cairo is dominated by luxury hotels, which account for 64% of supply, according to Colliers. At the end of 2018 hotel supply in the capital city included 18,836 rooms in international three- to five-star hotels. There are several major chains which are currently dominating the sector, including Marriott International, with 4303 rooms; and Hilton, with 2722 rooms.
Several international hotel chains are planning to expand in Cairo and across the Egyptian market. Radisson announced plans in February 2019 to open six new hotels in Egypt, with four located in Cairo, one in Ain Sokhna and one in Hurghada’s Makadi Bay. Marriott International, which operates 18 hotels across the country, is set to open four new locations by 2022, adding 1200 rooms to its portfolio. Swiss Inn Hotels announced plans in August 2018 to open three new hotels in Sharm El Sheikh, Marsa Alam and Hurghada by the end of 2019. The InterContinental Hotel Group is also set to open two hotels by 2023 as part of Sun Capital Development, a multibillion-pound, mixed-use development overlooking the Great Pyramids. These hotels will be the first for the group that are located in Giza.
Other hotel groups have completed large-scale renovations to existing hotels, such as Dubai-based Emaar Hospitality’s $84m renovation of Al Alamein Egypt Hotel in July 2018 under its Vida brand. The hotel, which includes 189 rooms and luxury chalets, is part of a residential and tourist community in Marassi on the Mediterranean coast. Additionally, earlier in 2019 Hilton debuted its premier brand, Waldorf Astoria, in the Heliopolis neighbourhood of Cairo. The hotel chain conducted this through the rebranding of the 247-room Towers Luxury Hotel under a management agreement with the local owner GulfEgypt for Hotels and Tourism. The agreement also includes the management of a second hotel in an adjacent block consisting of 593 rooms.
In addition to economic and security reforms, Egypt has employed an aggressive digital marketing strategy to attract visitors. In 2015 the country launched a three-year “This is Egypt” campaign that drew to a close in 2018, targeting both traditional source markets and new countries. In 2017 the country signed an agreement with news network CNN to run advertisements throughout the year in key African, European and Middle Eastern markets, and in September 2018 the government signed an agreement with local agency Synergy Advertising, which will work with international agencies such as the Middle East Communication Network, Interpublic Group of Companies, Universal Media and Weber Shandwick to promote Egypt on an global scale. The joint efforts have been designed to ensure each market receives the best strategy tailored to their interests and expectations.
Diplomacy has also been used to promote the country as a tourist destination. In March 2017 President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel had dinner in front of the Great Pyramids of Giza, and photographs were subsequently circulated online to target the German market. Germany accounted for 13% of arrivals in 2018, according to the WTTC. Other diplomatic guests include US First Lady Melania Trump, who was also photographed in front of the Great Pyramids and the Sphinx during her trip in October 2018.
The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia presented an opportunity for advertising to an important source market, as well as and the rest of the world. Egypt entered into an agreement with FIFA to become an official regional supporter of the tournament. During matches, promotional banners for the “Egypt – Experience and Invest” campaign were displayed to spectators in the stadiums and internationally via television broadcasts. The contract was the first World Cup sponsorship deal from outside China, Qatar and Russia in five years, and the first from Africa. The Ministry of Tourism (MoT) used the World Cup deal to coordinate a more comprehensive campaign for tourism which included increased activity on social media and digital billboards in 11 Russian cities, as well as in Germany, Spain, Poland and the UK. A video from the This is Egypt campaign, was awarded to be the best tourism promotional video in the Middle East by the UNWTO in September 2017, and was included in the World Cup campaign and transmitted via giant screens in several stadiums.
Tourism officials are targeting seven source markets – Germany, France, the UK, Italy, Russia, China and India – with the GEM2020 campaign (see analysis) to promote culture, arts and the inauguration of the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM). GEM2020 is one of the three pillars of the Egypt Tourism Reform Programme launched in 2018. The other two pillars are the 2019 “People to People” campaign – which aims to build relationships between Egyptians and the world by sharing the country’s culture and history – and destination branding.
Al Mashat announced in October 2018 the country would be organising entertainment events with wellknown figures by utilising social media, which has been identified by officials as the most important marketing tool. The MoT has launched a digital television channel, Experience Egypt, on its Instagram platform and has invited influencers for trips to visit some of the most famous sites. Officials hope to build on the success of the This is Egypt campaign to attract more visitors in the coming years.
While the number of international arrivals grew in 2017, the rate of growth was lower than in 2016, following flight route suspensions by the governments of several important source markets including the UK and Russia. Before the ban on flights in 2015, Russians made up 67.9% of foreign visitors with over 2.3m, followed by UK visitors at more than 850,000. By the end of the first half of 2016, Russians made up 13% of foreign visitors, a steep drop that had reverberations across the industry.
However, the resumption of flights in the first quarter of 2017 allowed the sector to begin to bounce back. Tourist arrivals grew 40% from 8.3m tourists in 2017 to 11.6m in 2018, according to figures from the ETF. Russian visitors made up 12% of visitors in 2018, outpaced only by Germans (13%), and visitors from the UK (7%), according to the WTTC. Visitors from the rest of the world accounted for 60% of international arrivals, further underscoring the success of efforts to diversify source markets.
New Flight Options
Lingering safety concerns have nonetheless changed travel patterns for some who opt to visit. Visitors from the UK who have traditionally formed an important source market for tourism in the Sinai resort area of Sharm El Sheikh have instead opted for the beach towns of Marsa Alam and Hurghada on the east coast as direct flights between the UK and Sharm El Sheikh have yet to resume. Similarly, Russian tourists who accounted for the largest share of visitors to Sharm El Sheikh remain barred from flying to the region directly. Despite an agreement reached between the Egyptian and Russian governments to lift the ban on flights between the countries in early 2018, the only permitted route is between Moscow and Cairo. EgyptAir and Russia’s Aeroflot, however, did reopen the route in April 2018.
While bookings from traditional source markets paint a mixed picture, growth in non-traditional source markets has been supported by the development of new flight routes. An air transportation agreement between Canada and Egypt was expanded in June 2018 to increase passenger flights from four to seven per week. The agreement notably permits additional flight routes to regions that remain subject to Russian and UK restrictions. In October 2018 China’s Sichuan Airlines launched direct flights to Cairo, and in recent years Air Cairo has added direct flights to routes from several Italian cities to Egypt, most recently through new routes from Naples and Rome to Marsa Alam, and Milan to Sharm El Sheikh in January 2019. In February 2019 EgyptAir added a Washington-to-Cairo route, bringing the number of cities serviced in North America to three. Previously the national carrier served only the cities of New York and Toronto.
As visitors from Egypt’s traditional sources slowed, the country looked to Asia and the Middle East to help lead the recovery. Ahmed Abdullah, the governor of the Red Sea Governorate, told local media that he expected an increase in the number of Asian tourists to Egypt in 2019. To encourage tourists, he said, hotels in the region began offering services in Chinese. “We want 1% of Chinese tourists heading overseas every year,” Abdullah said, noting there were more than 100m outbound Chinese tourists a year.
Tourists from other Arab countries have also been vital for Egypt’s tourism recovery. Travellers from Saudi Arabia alone accounted for 6% of visitors in 2018, and travellers from the Middle East and North Africa accounted for 30% of total international visitors in 2017. These numbers are set to increase at a 3.8% compound annual growth rate to over 1.3m in 2021, according to Colliers International. The authorities also see potential in growing the share of visitors from India. Ismail Abdel Hameed, the director of Egypt’s tourism office in South-east Asia and Australia, reported that 126,000 Indian tourists visited in 2018, which is more than double the 60,000 who came in 2014.
The results of diversification strategies are beginning to be seen in the changing demographics of visitors, according to Sanaa Raouf, head of sales at the Nile Kempinski. “The increase in the number of people from different nationalities has been a key driver of growth during the past two years,” Raouf told OBG. She noted there had been an increase in guests from China, Canada, Italy and Latin America.
Tourism authorities are also going on roadshows to draw in visitors from diversified markets. Hisham Al Dimery, former chairman of the Egyptian Tourism Promotion Board, visited Germany, Poland and Ukraine in 2017 to promote ties with tour operators and travel agencies in Egypt. Following the roadshow, Ukrainian bookings for winter 2018 grew by approximately 30% year-on-year, and similar results were also recorded for Polish visitors.
Determined to emphasise the country’s attractiveness and build upon the sector’s robust performance, Egypt is developing new tourist offerings and elevated infrastructure to draw in visitors. Among the projects under construction is the Galala Mountain city near Ain Sokhna on the Red Sea. The mega-project is expected to become a popular tourist destination with several resorts and tourist villages. Galala Mountain is part of a 7080 ha urban development project overseen by the Armed Forces Engineering Authority that aims to expand tourist attractions and urban living spaces in an integrated city. To accommodate additional tourists, Borg El Arab Airport in Alexandria will be expanded by 2022 to service 4m passengers, up from its current 1.2m capacity.
The GEM and the Giza Plateau Development Project, located near the Great Pyramids, are two other major projects being undertaken to attract tourists. The GEM, slated to open in 2020, is expected to attract 5m visitors a year. In January 2019 Egypt opened a new international airport, the Sphinx International Airport, near the Great Pyramids for trial flights. The new $17m facility, which is located across the megalopolis from Cairo International Airport, is designed to ease historically large amounts of congestion in the main airport in addition to facilitating tourism to Cairo’s most famous sites. Officials to aim to have the airport fully operational by 2020, coinciding with the opening of the GEM.
The authorities are also working to support the sector financially. The CBE announced in December 2018 that it would extend to the end of 2019 an initiative to support tourism, allowing operators to postpone payments to banks for up to three years. Additionally under the programme, individuals employed in the tourism sector can also defer mortgage and consumption loans for six months. The programme was initially implemented in February 2016 and has since been extended twice.
In 2018 the sector provided 2.5m jobs, or 9.5% of total employment. As the sector rebounds, the WTTC expects the sector workforce to increase to 3.2m by 2029. Following the decline in tourism between 2011 and 2016 many people exited the tourism job market, leaving behind a shortage of skilled employees. The Tahseen Hospitality Training Programme was launched in 2018 in response to the need for talent within the industry. The programme, a partnership between Marriott International, Helwan University and the Professional Development Foundation, offers technical training to complement a bachelor’s degree in hotel management and operations. It provides students with practical experience to tune their skills in an effort that is set to develop a new pool of leaders within the hospitality industry.
As some conventional sources of tourism traffic have stalled, Egypt has sought to develop alternative revenue streams. Business tourism accounted for 12.3% of tourism’s direct contribution to GDP in 2017, with business travel spending totalling LE34.7bn ($2bn), according to the WTTC. The WTTC projects business travel spending will reach LE54.1bn ($3bn) in 2028. Egypt is also targeting medical tourism under a programme supervised by the office of the prime minister that would offer heart, orthopaedic, eye and other surgeries in the first phase for visitors from 15 Arab and African countries. Some 20 hospitals are set to receive patients from abroad. In coordination with the ministers of tourism and foreign affairs, a mechanism is even being developed to issue medical tourism visas to patients, which further emphasises the anticipated growing success of the sector.
Additionally, the Tourism and Aviation Committee of the House of Representatives announced plans in December 2018 to start marketing the country as a destination for medical tourism and will bring medical tourists to the country in the second half of 2019. The committee hopes to draw on the sulphurous and mineral springs across the country to attract visitors seeking natural treatments for bone, digestive and respiratory diseases. The programme builds upon the Tour and Cure initiative launched in 2017, offering advanced, low-cost hepatitis C treatment to patients from around the world.
Despite setbacks, the tourism sector in Egypt has shown remarkable resilience. The industry recorded gradual growth in arrivals and revenue in 2017 and 2018. Although visitor numbers have not yet been restored to their pre-2011 levels, occupancy rates have increased across the country, with Cairo experiencing its highest occupancy levels since 2010. New source markets are continuing to grow while traditional markets are returning, raising optimism in government and among investors that the sector will flourish throughout 2019 and beyond.