Natalie Paris, The Daily Telegraph, February 13, 2014
After a catastrophic year, tourism chiefs in Egypt are attempting to win back holidaymakers by urging them to visit destinations miles from Cairo.
The country suffered its worst September ever in terms of visits from international tourists, with a 90 per cent year-on-year drop in numbers compared to September 2012.
Images of the violence that followed mass sit-ins in Cairo were broadcast around the world in July, prompting the Foreign Office (FO) to warn against travel to most of the country.
The warning and others like it from other European countries were “devastating” to Egypt’s tourist numbers, according to Hisham Zaazou, the country’s tourism minister.
Europe, with its 73 per cent share of Egypt’s tourism market, became a “tap that had closed”, forcing the minister to spend October and November trying to get the bans lifted.
The “generic” advice, interpreted as a broad ban on travel, was “not fair”, he told journalists at a press conference on Wednesday. “They did not have a specific approach to it and that hurt us a lot.”
The FO lifted the restrictions on travel to Luxor and the south, plus Cairo and the pyramids in November.
There have been no incidents targeting tourists in Egypt in three years, Mr Zaazou said, describing current tension as an Egyptian – Egyptian issue.
But he admitted that Cairo will struggle to attract visitors while protests continue and said the pyramids still resembled a ghost town.
“There is nothing to fear in Cairo,” he said. “I don’t think a tourist who wants to see the pyramids is wishing to attend a demonstration in Cairo, so once you are away from this there is no problem. But people are not coming.”
Instead, the Egyptian government’s hopes to win back tourists are focussed on Luxor, the southern city that is home to the impressive temple of Karnak.
Direct flights from London to Luxor with Egypt Air will begin again on February 17, meaning holidaymakers will not have to set foot in Cairo. Both the first flight and the second, the following week, are already full.
“Let’s forget about Cairo itself,” Mr Zaazou said. “The viewer who watches the Ten O’Clock News and that demonstration down the street, connects Cairo with Egypt and says 'yes I would love to come to Egypt but not now, later.'"
“So we are moving tourists down to places like Hurghada, Sharm el Sheikh, Luxor and Aswan. They are so far away that if you go there you feel like you are in another country altogether.”
Mr Zaazou hopes this will alleviate the pinch being felt by poorer members of Egyptian society who rely on tourists for their income and told the story of a kalesh (horse and carriage) owner who last September asked him whether he should be buying food for his child or his horse.
But Mr Zaazou was optimistic that incentives for airlines and package deals with UK operators could help put and end to the crisis and see the total number of international visitors climb from last year’s 9.5 million to at least the 11.5 million recorded in 2012.
Describing Egypt as a family market he said: “The question is does fear have a price? “Yes it does, if you have the right package with the right price.”
With year-round sunshine and many cultural treasures, Egypt’s natural blessings make it resilient in tourism terms and UK tour operators expect the country to remain good value in 2014.
The specialist operator Discover Egypt (0207 407 2111; www.discoveregypt.co.uk ) said it had no travellers in Egypt between July 3 and November 8 in response to the Foreign Office’s warning. But the Nile cruises it is running using the new Luxor flight are at 70 per cent capacity, with free upgrades being offered to passengers.
Savvy travellers and those with a sense of adventure are being encouraged to visit now. G Adventures (0844 272 2040; www.gadventures.co.uk ), another Egypt specialist, said it had staff on the ground monitoring the situation in Cairo for its programmes this year. “The fewer crowds mean there is no better time to see the wonders of Egypt,” said John Warner, the company’s managing director.
Life may be returning to Luxor, but only time will tell how long the drought will last elsewhere.