Fears Egypt’s tourism sector could be a casualty of COVID-19

Egypt has confirmed more than 50 coronavirus cases, including dozens on a Nile cruise ship.
Sunday 15/03/2020
Tourists visit the Luxor Temple in Egypt’s southern city of Luxor, March 11. (AFP)
Crucial sector. Tourists visit the Luxor Temple in Egypt’s southern city of Luxor, March 11. (AFP)

CAIRO - Egypt's crucial tourism sector is carrying on even as dozens of coronavirus infections have been confirmed in the country but how long the sector will remain active is a growing concern of tourism officials and experts.

“The sector has already been affected with a large number of international tourists preferring to stay at home and avoid travelling,” said tourism expert Magdi Selim.

Egypt has confirmed more than 50 coronavirus cases, including dozens on a Nile cruise ship. The first case on the ship was apparently a Taiwanese tourist who was on board.

Most of those who tested positive for the virus have either been foreigners arriving from overseas or Egyptians who contracted the virus abroad. Egypt raised its health alert level at entry points, including ports and airports where arrivals must undergo a temperature check to screen for fever.

The government started a nationwide awareness campaign of how the virus spreads and how to avoid contagion. Schoolchildren are being taught prevention methods, such as frequent hand-washing and the need to avoid touching their faces.

School administrators asked parents not to send their children to school if they have high temperatures or have been coughing or sneezing.

Health authorities are disinfecting trains and underground stations, as well as public gathering places, such as mosques, churches and government administrative offices.

“Health authorities are dealing very professionally and seriously with the virus,” said Ahmed al-Ergawi, a member of the Committee on Health in the Egyptian parliament. “These measures have contributed to reducing the risk from the virus but we are still at the beginning.”

Egypt reported its first coronavirus fatality March 8 — a German tourist who died at the Red Sea resort of Hurghada a few days after being hospitalised.

There are fears that a downturn in Egypt’s tourism sector, with the spread of the virus, could be devastating for the country’s economy. Tourism contributes around 15% of Egypt’s annual national income and the sector employs up to 5 million people.

The recession that hit the sector at the end of 2015, sparked by the bombing of a Russian passenger plane over Sinai, caused unprecedented losses and exposed vulnerabilities of Egypt’s economy.

The recession was worsened by flight suspensions imposed on Red Sea resorts by Egypt’s most important tourist-sending countries. Deprived of tourism revenue, Egypt initiated painful reforms and borrowed $12 billion from the International Monetary Fund.

The sector had been showing signs of recovery, with high occupancy rates at hotels in most of the country’s tourist destinations but the COVID-19 threatens the upturn.

The sector was especially hurt after 45 Nile cruise ship workers tested positive for the virus. Soon after, reports emerged of workers on other Nile cruise ships resigning for fear of contracting COVID-19.

There are also reports of tourists cancelling cruise reservations.

Nile cruises are an important part of Egypt’s tourism sector, especially in southern Egypt between Aswan and Luxor.

The Tourism Promotion Authority, an arm of the Egyptian Tourism and Antiquities Ministry, said COVID-19 caused East Asian markets to stop sending tourists to Egypt.

“Apart from this, there is a marked drop in new reservations,” Authority Chairman Ahmed Youssef said. “But it must be noted that this is the case everywhere in the world, not only in Egypt.”

He said health authorities tested all tourism workers for coronavirus to ensure none had been infected.

Egyptian Health Minister Hala Zayed, and Tourism and Antiquities Minister Khaled al-Anani visited Luxor on March 6 to drive home the message that Egypt remained a safe destination for tourists. They visited a Nile cruise ship and checked preventive measures applied at the airport and at the city’s hotels.

Health authorities are trying to prevent new infections among citizens and foreign tourists.

“There are booking cancellations but things will be far worse in case of more infections inside our country,” Selim said. “This is why health authorities should prevent these infections from happening.”