Egypt’s tourism recovering but still below 2010 figures
Cairo - The work day was about to end and Ahmed Mustafa prepared to close his shop in Khan al-Khalili, the famous old bazaar in the heart of Cairo.
Over the past 12 hours, Mustafa, 29 and the father of two children, could sell only a few items in his souvenir shop. Nonetheless, he was retiring for the day. “People come and go but nobody is ready to get any money out of his pocket and buy anything,” he said. “This is really a tough time for us.”
Nevertheless, Mustafa and other sellers and shop owners are seeing signs of a recovery of tourism. Foreigners have started to show up again at the market, perhaps marking an end to the tourist drought in the aftermath of the 2011 uprising.
Security deterioration and political instability that followed the uprising that ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 had kept visitors away from one of the Arab world’s most attractive tourist destinations.
But, four years on, Egypt’s tourism sector is beginning to recover. Hotels, resorts and historic sites are receiving more guests. Around 10 million tourists visited Egypt in 2014, compared to 14 million in the year that preceded the uprising. This figure is an improvement from the 9.8 million visitors in 2011 and 9.5 million in 2013.
In 2015, Egypt hopes that it could attract as many as 12 million tourists and seems to be well on track. In March, 835,000 foreign tourists visited Egypt, a significant leap from the 640,000 tourists registered in February, according to the Central Bank of Egypt.
Tourism expert Mohamed Salah Attia said he expected tourist inflows to improve with continuous improvement in security and political conditions.
“A large number of the countries that had imposed bans on travel to Egypt are lifting these bans,” Attia said, citing Germany, which lifted its travel ban to the land of the pharaohs in March, as the most recent example.
“European airlines are also increasing their flights to Egypt, which, at the end, would translate into more tourists coming here,” he added.
Now, Egypt says it seeks to capitalise on its considerable security improvements to raise the annual number of tourists to 20 million by 2020.To reach that target, Tourism Minister Khaled Rami said, a marketing plan, including a series of promotional and marketing activities to showcase Egypt’s tourist attractions, will be launched in 27 countries.
Nevertheless, there are sceptics who say the plan will not pay off as long as the negative image formed about Egypt during the past four years has not changed.
“Do we really need to tell people in other countries that we have pyramids, sun and beaches?” tourism expert Sameh Saad asked.
“There is a negative image about our country and we need to change it to be able to bring the tourists back,” Saad, a former Tourism Ministry adviser, added.
He said to double the number of tourists in five years Egypt needed to take drastic measures, including opening new destinations, creating new market segments and — most importantly — launching a major process of marketing communication.
Tailored marketing campaigns should be carried out in targeted countries, taking into consideration the special culture of each country, to convey the true image of Egypt, Saad explained.
“Without all these measures, we won’t be able to attract any more tourists to our country,” he said.
This discourse is too complicated for people like Mustafa, the Khan al-Khalili seller, and the more than 3 million other people indirectly working in tourism in Egypt to understand. He and other sellers and shop owners in the market want tourists to visit Khan al-Khalili and — apart from immersing themselves in the unique atmosphere of medieval Islamic Cairo — buy the products they are offering.
Mustafa sells traditional Egyptian clothes, small statues and busts of pharaohs and papyrus. He places his products orderly on a table in front of his shop and sits on a chair, scrutinising passers-by in the hope that tourists would come in and buy.
“Come in. It isn’t expensive. You’ll like it,” Mustafa shouted as a group of Chinese tourists passed his shop.
In the tiled alleyways of the market, fellow sellers stood outside their shops, hoping to attract some tourists strolling around the antiquated market.
To the dismay of these sellers, the trickle-down effect of improving tourism indicators will take time.
“It will take some time for this improvement to translate” economist Rashad Abdo said. “But let me tell you that a better functioning tourism sector will have very positive impacts on the national economy in general.”
Some 5 million Egyptians are directly or indirectly working in the tourism sector but a large number of these people lost their jobs in the years that followed the revolution.
In 2010, Egypt earned $12.8 billion in revenues from tourism, bringing in badly needed foreign currency. In 2012, tourism revenues dropped to a meagre $4.5 billion, rising to $6.2 billion in 2013.