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Tuesday 20th March 2018

Egypt’s Fragile Tourism Industry


James Denselow

Mon, 07 Jan 2019 07:56 GMT

In Britain several newspapers recently looked ahead to holiday recommendations in 2019 with Egypt near the top of several top ten ‘to visit’ lists.

It should come as no real surprise. The country’s historical ruins - from the iconic pyramids to the valleys of the Kings and Queens in Luxor - is complemented by the Red Sea resorts of Sharm al Sheikh and the rustic charms of the various Nile river destinations.

The country has long had the infrastructure and set up to welcome tourists. Tourism is one of the leading sources of income, crucial to Egypt's economy. At its peak in 2010 the sector employed about 12% of Egypt's workforce serving approximately 14.7 million visitors Egypt and providing revenues of nearly $12.5 billion. Since 2010 Tourism has remained one of the main drivers of Egypt’s struggling economy, contributing around 375bn Egyptian pounds (£16bn), or 11% of GDP, in 2017, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Yet tourists, certainly at the large numbers needed to maintain the industry in Egypt, are a sensitive market and react badly to headlines that could put their relaxing break in jeopardy. I witnessed this for myself visiting Luxor in 1998 just after the November 1997 killing of some 67 people, mainly tourists, by gunmen. The tourist sites were empty, the markets likewise, the hotels filled with staff that outnumbered guests and were worried for their future jobs.

However, time is the greatest healer and as memories fade and competitive prices brought tourists back to top of the range hotels in the area and the market recovered. In 2010 the Arab Spring and the sight of tanks surrounding protestors in the centre of Cairo created another shock to the tourism sector, sending visitor numbers spiraling down.

In Egypt earlier this year tourism officials spoke to me about how the recovery was in motion and numbers returning, although not yet at, pre-2010 levels. This recovery was dealt a harsh blow last week when an improvised explosive device (IEDs) targeted a tourist bus - killing three Vietnamese tourists, an Egyptian tour guide and wounding ten others.

The magnitude of the attack for Egypt’s recovering sector was reflected in the country’s Prime Minister rushing to the scene. Yet the subsequent narrative around events became confused as officials seemed to suggest that the bus had taken a non-secured route.

Nobody has claimed responsibility for the attack so far and the Egyptian Foreign Ministry released a statement saying that “the bombing of the tourist bus in El-Maryoutiya, a despicable, cowardly terrorist act which targets what cannot be targeted: The determination of Egypt and the Egyptians."

The determination of the Egyptian government to be seen to be responded and clamping down on these unknown attackers resulted in raids across the saw some 40 suspected ‘terrorists’ killed. The government claimed to have thus disrupted further attacks against vulnerable tourist or Christian places of worship.

In terms of what happens next all eyes will be on tourist agencies and incoming flight bookings into the country. Such is the broad nature of attacks on tourists - from Tunisia to Turkey to London - that there is perhaps greater resilience and understanding of the nature of the threat and the low likelihood of being caught up on it.

A crucial factor will be if other countries change their travel advice - which has huge consequences for insurance and can particularly affect larger tourist agency bookings. This was a challenge for Tunisia following the Sousse shootings in 2015 and a reminder of how devastating the actions of a small number of people can be for a huge industry.

The Egyptian authorities will have to show how tourists are being protected from this heightened threat. At one level this is about reinforcing security around static sites - hotels and airports. Already entering the more expensive hotels in Cairo feels like a completely different experience from a decade ago - complete with sniffer dogs, armed police and a variety of scanners.

What is harder is securing large sites such as the Pyramids. Visiting these colossal structures involves travelling across one of the biggest cities in the world and as was shown last week - it is logistically very different to prevent against pre-planned explosive devices. IEDs proved to be too hard a adversary for US forces in Afghanistan, they are cheap, deadly and hard to very difficult to counter.

Egypt is now a veteran country in the battle to balance an effective counter-terrorism response with maintaining a popular and vibrant tourism industry. The weeks ahead are a critical test as to whether they can persuade nervous tourists that the country is still safe to visit.

Middle East Africa