After pope’s blessing, Egypt looks to Christian religious tourism
Cairo - After Pope Francis confirmed that Egypt will be included as an official Roman Catholic Church pilgrimage destination for 2018, hopes are high that Christian religious tourism could serve as a major benefit to overall Egyptian tourism next year.
“This can totally reverse the conditions of the tourism sector in our country,” said Ahmed Hamdi, deputy head of the Tourism Promotion Authority, the executive arm of Egypt’s Tourism Ministry. “The pope’s blessing of the icon is an open invitation for Catholic Christians to visit Egypt as part of their pilgrimage.”
Francis blessed an icon that represents the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt October 4 when he met with Egyptian Tourism Minister Yehia Rashed in Rome.
“Egypt is a land where Saint Joseph, the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus, as well as many prophets lived: A land that has been blessed with the precious blood of martyrs spilt throughout the centuries,” the pope said.
Cairo hopes Catholic pilgrims will travel to Egypt to recreate the steps of the Holy Family during its flight from King Herod’s persecution shortly after Jesus’s birth. At a time when Egypt’s ailing tourism industry is on the rise, this would represent a strong sign of revitalisation.
The pilgrimage would take visitors to eight destinations in Egypt that were meaningful to the Holy Family during its flight from Herod and its return to the Holy Land.
The first is in Arish in North Sinai, crosses to the Eastern Nile Delta and reaches Wadi Natrun, which is home to four important Coptic monasteries. The journey would include Cairo, where the Holy Family reportedly spent time, with pilgrims touring ancient monasteries and cathedrals in the city.
Egypt’s tourism sector received a blow in October 2015 when a Russian passenger plane was bombed over the Sinai Peninsula, killing 224 people. The incident, which was claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS), precipitated flight suspensions that squeezed Egyptian tourist sites, hotels and resorts.
With many flights restored, Egypt’s tourism industry is improving, albeit slowly. An influx of Catholic pilgrims, responding to the pope’s blessing, would be a major boost. Rashed said the Holy Family tour could attract as many as 20% of the world’s 2.2 billion Christians, of whom almost 1.3 billion are Roman Catholic.
“This blessing will potentially invite a large number of Christian pilgrims to come here,” said Modi el- Shaer, deputy head of the Tourism Chamber, the independent guild of tour operators. “Tourist inflows will end the crisis of the tourism sector, bring work to the hotels and bring money to the state treasury.”
A number of international tour operators have begun selling bookings for the Holy Family tour. Memphis Tours, an international tour operator, with a long history in Egyptian tourism, is selling a 15-day private tour starting from $1,799.
Shaer, his colleagues and Egyptian tourism officials are preparing for the potential arrival of Christian pilgrims. Cairo predicted about 200,000 Catholic pilgrims would visit next year, a number that could rise if things go well.
The Tourism Ministry has started upgrading sites and taking measures with other state agencies to ensure that pilgrims will have a memorable time. Ultimately, Cairo hopes to provide a 25-site tour for Christian pilgrims. The ministry has been training people in the areas to help them deal with tourists proficiently and make visitors feel welcome.
In addition, talks are moving ahead with European public relations firms on how to reach out and coordinate with international tour operators and airlines to organise pilgrimages to Egypt.
Revenues from the tourism sector in 2016 totalled less than $5 billion, down from $14 billion in 2010, the year before the uprising against longstanding President Hosni Mubarak. Preliminary figures for 2017 indicate a rise and many hope that marks the beginning of the recovery.
The drop in tourist inflows after the uprising exposed the vulnerabilities of the Egyptian economy and deprived the country’s treasury of much-needed foreign currency, which forced a controversial currency flotation that has caused high rates of inflation.
Whether the campaign to attract Christian pilgrims — with or without the pope’s blessing — will succeed is another matter. Tourism experts said Egypt faces several challenges as it tries to attract Catholic pilgrims.
“Egypt also needs to have strong deals with airlines offering charter services,” said Magdi Selim, a former senior official of the Tourism Ministry. “The pilgrims will never come here without this.”