Egypt desperately seeks rescue plan for tourism sector
CAIRO - Having been caught off-guard after Britain and Russia halted flights to its Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt is considering a contingency plan to circumvent the damage the recent developments could have on its tourism industry.
The plan, announced November 7th by Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou, includes an aggressive promotion campaign to explore new tourist markets. It also involves media briefings in Egypt to give direct information to international media about the security situation at the Red Sea resort.
Britain halted flights to Sharm el-Sheikh and sought to evacuate up to 20,000 British citizens at the resort. The decision came after the October 31st crash of a Russian passenger plane 23 minutes after take-off from Sharm el-Sheikh en route to St Petersburg, Russia, killing all 224 people on board.
The British decision reverberated across Egypt’s tourism sector, which accounts for about 15% of the country’s national income, according to the Federation of Tourist Chambers (FTC), the independent guild of the country’s tourism investors and tour operators.
Part of the shock stems from the fact that Britain sends almost 1 million tourists to Egypt every year. Another reason is that Egypt’s tourism sector was showing signs of recovery after years of turmoil following the 2011 uprising that had derailed it.
Egypt expected its tourism sector to pick up again this year and attract up to 13% more tourists than in 2014, when about 10 million tourists visited Egypt.
The view in Cairo following the British decision to halt flights to Sharm el-Sheikh is that Egypt is being punished for its growing ties with Russia with Syria being at the centre.
“Our country is being caught in the middle of an intelligence war between Russia and the West over Syria,” FTC member Abdel Rahman Anwar said. “Our tourism sector has just started to pick up after years of loss.”
Egypt has vocally supported Russia’s air campaign in Syria, a campaign that has brought Russian President Vladimir Putin condemnation from the United States, Israel and some European countries.
Yet, Putin gave Egypt’s tourism sector its most painful blow when on November 6th, he halted all flights to Egypt and ordered the evacuation of the more than 80,000 Russian tourists from Sharm el-Sheikh.
Russia’s decision to halt flights augurs slow death for Egypt’s’ tourism sector. Apart from its contagiously devastating effect should other countries follow Putin’s actions, Russia itself sends Egypt about 3 million tourists every year.
About 75% of the tourists who visit Egypt go to Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada, another Red Sea resort.
The stampede of Russian and British tourists out of Sharm el- Sheikh started soon after Britain and Russia halted flights to the resort. There were photos of tourists from the countries standing in long lines at Sharm el-Sheikh airport preparing to board planes.
Local newspapers, meanwhile, ran photos of tourists arriving at the resort for vacations.
Hossam al-Shaer, another FTC member, said he expected Egypt’s tourism sector to lose up to $1 billion in the coming weeks if the government does not contain the effects of the British and Russian moves.
“We can even witness more dire consequences if we do not take action now,” he said.
Fears in London and Moscow, as well as in other international capitals, are based on what officials in those capitals describe as intelligence information that a bomb caused the Russian plane to break apart and crash.
Some Israeli newspapers claimed Sinai militants affiliated with the Islamic State (ISIS) had acquired Russian-made missiles from Islamist militants in Libya that can strike targets 14,325 metres away. The last contact with the Russia plane had it at 9,400 metres.
Egypt has dismissed the reports as “premature” and called on all parties to wait for the results of an inquiry into the reasons for the plane crash.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on November 8th said that countries claiming to have information about an ISIS involvement in the crash did not share it with Cairo.
His comments came soon after an unnamed US intelligence official said that the United States had intercepted communications between Sinai militants and ISIS leaders in Raqqa, their stronghold in northern Syria, in which they celebrated shooting down the Russian plane.
Egypt wants to do anything to salvage its tourism sector from a feared domino effect from the British and Russian moves.
Shaer and his colleagues are putting together a number of suggestions to prevent this effect. The suggestions include allowing Egypt’s national carrier, EgyptAir, to fly in tourists from London and Moscow, exploring new tourism markets and easing some visa requirements.
“We need to act now before the tourism sector starts to feel the heat from the British and Russian decisions,” Shaer said. “If not, the tourism sector will be in for unprecedented losses.”