Egypt’s dwindling tourism revenues affect antiquities
Cairo - With a shaky economy following years of unrest and a huge drop in the number of tourists, Egypt has struggled to preserve its fabled archaeological heritage.
From Alexandria on the Mediterranean to the Great Pyramid of Giza — the last of the Seven Wonders of the World — and Aswan to the south, the North African country is home to impressive ancient monuments.
For years, the sites relied on a steady stream of ticket sales to finance their upkeep but since Egypt’s 2011 revolution, the number of tourists visiting the country has dwindled, leaving authorities scrambling to make up lost revenues.
“Since January 2011, our revenues have fallen sharply, which had a strong effect on the state of Egyptian monuments,” Egyptian Antiquities Minister Khaled el-Enany said.
From more than 15 million in 2010, the number of tourists visiting Egypt totalled 6.3 million in 2015. Revenue from tickets to historical sites dropped to about $38 million in 2015 from approximately $220 million in 2010.
Years of political tumult after the 2011 uprising that unseated strongman Hosni Mubarak and a jihadist insurgency following the army’s 2013 overthrow of his Islamist successor Muhammad Morsi have discouraged many from visiting.
“It’s catastrophic,” said Fayza Haikal, an Egyptologist and professor at the American University of Cairo.
Zahi Hawass, an archaeologist and former Antiquities minister, said the country’s heritage has suffered because of the tourism decline.
“With the lack of funding, you cannot restore anything. Look at the Cairo museum. It’s dark,” he said, referring to the famed Egyptian Museum in the capital’s Tahrir Square. “And you cannot ask the government to support you because the economy is not that good. And antiquities are deteriorating everywhere.”
Administering the country’s antiquities takes about 38,000 employees, including on-site workers, technicians, Egyptologists and inspectors, the ministry said.
The government has relied on foreign handouts since Morsi’s overthrow and decided to float its currency as part of an economic reform programme connected to a loan from the International Monetary Fund.
An important part of an economic revival would include the return of tourism, a main hard currency earner for Egypt.
Until then, Enany is trying to limit the damage.
“I try to do extra activities to increase revenue,” he said.
For example, the Egyptian Museum, home to the golden mask of Tutankhamun and mummies of pharaohs, is now kept open into the night, he said. Annual passes are available to encourage Egyptians to visit the sites.
Patrons and archaeological missions contribute to the preservation of Egypt’s ancient heritage but the funds cannot cover everything.
“Priority is given to restoration,” said Haikal, “but there are excavations that have been stopped due to lack of funding.”
The excavations “have waited for 5,000 years and can wait”, she said, but important restoration work has also been delayed.
“At the very least we identify what needs restoration and we do the minimum to keep them in a proper state,” Haikal added.
Enany is pushing to grant public access to more sites, as was done with the recently opened tombs of Nefertari and Seti I in Luxor. The Malawi museum in the southern province of Minya has also been reopened, after a mob looted it during the bloody unrest following Morsi’s overthrow.
The Grand Egyptian Museum near the Giza pyramids should also be opened, at least partially, in 2018.
On some projects, the ministry can get special funding, such as for recent work done on the synagogue of Alexandria and the Abu Mena church, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Hawass, who advises Enany, said the minister needs more support and for authorities to think beyond Egypt by undertaking exhibitions abroad.
“Why leave Tutankhamun in the Cairo museum, in a dark area. No one sees it,” he said. “Tutankhamun can bring money!”