Egypt's Political Turmoil Drives Foreign Tourists Away

Sep 22, 2011

The big losers of the Arab Spring in Egypt aren't just Hosni Mubarak and his allies.

Before the February revolution, one of every seven Egyptians made a living in the tourism industry. But nearly seven months after the popular uprising, foreign tourists are still largely staying away.

Their absence has delivered a multibillion-dollar financial blow that is reverberating from luxury tour operators down to vendors in Cairo's bazaars.

At the Khan el-Khalili market, which is popular with foreign visitors, Hassan Abdel Ain chisels Islamic artwork onto a copper plate. He has spent more than a half-century perfecting his craft, and it used to bring him 20 sales a day.

Now, the weathered-looking artisan says he's lucky if he can sell even one plate.

Nearby, shopkeepers play dominoes in the narrow alleys while waiting for tourists who rarely come anymore.

One store manager, Hisham Ahmed, says that a year ago this market was packed with foreigners during the cooler evening hours. On this night, only a few Egyptians walk past without glancing at his wares.

Ahmed says he and others in the tourist trade are suffering because of a revolution that everyone here hoped would improve Egyptian life.

Egypt's top tourism officials agree. They say media reports of demonstrations that ousted President Mubarak coupled with foreign travel warnings about the unrest have frightened away millions of tourists.

Tourism in Egypt has dropped 35 percent overall in the first half of this year compared with the same period in 2010, according to Hisham Zaazou, the senior assistant tourism minister.

That's been a $3 billion loss for the Egyptian economy. While Egypt's military rulers have more or less restored calm, the number of travelers has been slow to rebound.

"I'm worried, and I think everybody working in this industry is worried," Zaazou says. "It's a matter of how we can restore and regain consumer confidence again."

Rebound Much Slower Than Expected

Karim Aly agrees. As the vice president of Emeco Travel, a large operator based in Cairo, he says he has never seen a rebound this slow. It's even worse than in the 1990s, when a series of terrorist attacks drove away tourists.

His company has only 20 to 25 percent of the business it expected this year. "This is a failure, a huge failure, because we are a company of 500 employees. So how can I support 500 employees with 20 percent of the revenue?"

He says dozens of his employees are on extended unpaid leaves.

Cairo-based tour guides such as Maha Mahmoud el-Halwagy are also having a rough time. She says her workload has been cut by two-thirds because foreigners are too afraid to come despite steep discounts being offered on tour packages.

Halwagy believes such fear is misplaced. She says Egyptians are generally very protective of tourists. She notes that none of the violence or protests has been directed at visitors.

"But of course the tourists don't know that," she says.

Egypt's reputation took another blow when a group of protesters recently attacked the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, leading the ambassador and the staff to return home to Israel.

Halwagy says that attack threatens an uptick in tourism that was expected here next month. She and others here now expect the tourism lull to continue well into next year.

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