The last several weeks have been, to say the least, a tense time for Egypt. As the nation’s political future remains up in the air, its tourism scene is on decidedly rocky ground.
Since the military ouster of Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president, last week, the U.S. Department of State has issued travel warnings for the country, and other governments have followed suit. But unlike the 2011 Arab Spring that kicked off in Tahrir Square, the recent events do not seem to be slowing travel to Egypt…perhaps because travel to Egypt was already slow to begin with.
Just today, the New Yorker described Egypt’s tourism industry as “beleaguered.” The article notes that in 2010, the year before the revolution began, 14 million international tourists visited the country and spent approximately $13 billion. According to a report from the United Nations World Tourism Organization in 2011, Egypt’s tourism industry accounted for eleven per cent of the country’s G.D.P. that year. The same report shows that in the first quarter of 2011, when popular uprisings forced out the former President Hosni Mubarak, international tourism declined by forty-five percent.
Protests at popular tourism sites hasn’t helped: The US Embassy in Cairo has reported demonstrations at the Giza Pyramids. “As a matter of general practice, U.S. citizens should avoid areas where large gatherings may occur. Even demonstrations or events intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence. U.S. citizens in Egypt are urged to monitor local news reports and to plan their activities accordingly.”
Agents and industry professionals assessed the situation on Facebook: Malaka Hilton said that she has no clients heading to Egypt until October (“and all still a go”), while Michele Kesner Willems still has clients going to Egypt in November. Stacy Small said that Egypt “has not been the top of the list for our clients this year,” but Federico von Sanden said that he has seen a Nile cruise and a visit to Cairo canceled. (He also noted that the German Government has also issued a warning against traveling to Egypt.) Susan McKee postponed her own trip to Cairo “indefinitely”; she had planned to begin a business trip there last Sunday.
Some tour operators are also speaking out about the situation: Ronen Paldi, president of Ya’lla Tours, called the situation a “rollercoaster,” and lamented that just a month ago, the general perception was that travel to Egypt was increasing. “Not to the levels of before January, 2011,” he added, but there was a rise. “We were feeling very positive, very optimistic for the fall season. Then June 30th happened and everything changed.”
Ya’lla has canceled all trips to Egypt through August 15, and will reassess the situation after that. “I am still very optimistic for the winter of next year,” he added, “because the mood in Egypt is completely different. Everybody is very happy and relieved with the change.” Elections are planned for February—perhaps not coincidentally, the three-year anniversary of former president Hosni Mubarak’s resignation—but Paldi does not believe that potential visitors will wait until then to return to Egypt. “As soon as the people see that the economy is getting better, moving in the right direction, it will calm down and people will travel again.” He also noted that many Europeans have continued to visit resorts on the Red Sea.
The Muslim holy month of Ramadan has just begun, and observers will spend the next 33 days fasting for 17 hours per day, with no water (in the summer heat) and no smoking. “That will take its toll on people,” Paldi commented, and anticipated that many potential protestors will go home to.
Great Safaris’ CEO Dave Herbert said that his company has not been booking travel to Egypt, although they had noticed an “uptick” before the current situation began. “Things will get bad before they get better,” he said, adding that many clients are simply waiting to see what happens before they change their plans for upcoming trips during the fall’s peak season. “As I’ve been told firsthand, things in Alexandria and Cairo are unsettled,” he said. But, just as with Ya'lla, Herbert has noticed some travel continuing, just on a smaller scale. “Cruises on the Nile are on as scheduled, but with fewer boats. There are still some going into Luxor and the Valley of the Kings. In Sharm-al-Sheik, people are still going to the Red Sea and diving, doing normal resort activities. I don’t think we’ll see a turnaround till the situation resolves, and that may take awhile.”
Egypt, Herbert added, is the only real mass destination in Africa. “There are more Americans in Egypt than in virtually the rest of the continent,” he said, adding that the country saw approximately 250,000 Americans in 2010—more than Kenya, South Africa or Tanzania. “It is a big destination,” he said, noting that the downturn is a “big drop” for the country.
Great Safaris has people sending back reports from Egypt, where he says the economy is “terribly bad, and not just for tourism.” But, he added, he is optimistic for the country’s long-term prospects. “We have nine wars in Africa right now, real shooting wars that don’t get on the radar. There are 52 countries, many with internal and border conflicts.” But even with that violence, he said, people can still travel and have a great experience away from the conflicts.
As a South African, Herbert can relate to the situation in Egypt. “We were facing the potential of civil war before and after the government changed,” he recalled of the end of apartheid 20 years ago. “We were fortunate. Nelson Mandela had a majority vote when he came into power. But he was a unifier. He brought factions together and became the president of the whole country. Morsi won with 51 percent of the vote and became president for his party. He wasn’t a unifier. There was a lot of dissatisfaction.” Herbert also praised the ailing ex-President’s decision to serve a single term and then pass the torch. “I can’t see that being duplicated. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
Another tour operator, Big Five Tours and Exhibitions, is also receiving ongoing first-hand accounts from the family of its managing director in Egypt, Gamal Abu Seif. Both his daughters, Farah and Nour Abouseif, have been reporting from Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
“With so many conflicting stories flying around right now, we wanted to provide a window into what is happening through detailed reports from the ground, and without taking anything out of context,” said Ashish Sanghrajka, president of Big Five Tours & Expeditions in a statement.
Abouseif emphasizes that the military took action to help Egypt, not rule it, and that the Egyptian people want to see “an end to any escalation of violence, early presidential elections; and the creation of a national coalition government that represents all Egyptians equally.”
According to CNN, the Egyptian military has said that more than 600 people were detained on Monday, and 206 of these face charges of manslaughter, voluntary manslaughter, acts of violence and illegal possession of firearms. The suspects will remain in police custody for another 15 days while investigations into their actions continue.
Help may come from other nations in the region: The New York Times is reporting that three Persian Gulf’s monarchies have pledged a total of $12 billion in cash and loans to Egypt. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait are all looking to help stabilize the “shaky transitional government” and strengthen their alliance.