…Egypt certainly hopes so.
Delegates at this week’s WTM Vision Conference at the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai heard that inbound trips to the Middle East region were down 5% last year mainly due to the decline of arrivals to those countries hit by the Arab Spring, which took place in 2011. I’m surprised it is down so little, and, with Syria engaged in civil war and tensions in surrounding countries high, the overall figures for the region don’t seem likely to improve any time soon.
For countries whose economy depends on tourism, the past few years have been really difficult, and one in particular, Egypt, now finds itself at something of a crossroads.
Egyptian Chamber of Commerce statistics show hotel & resort occupancy rates have fallen by 50% since the outbreak of the 25 January revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
This is jaw-dropping stuff when you consider that tourism reportedly accounts for upwards of 11.3% of Egypt’s GDP, generating 15.2% of its foreign currency reserves. Roughly 45% of Egypt’s service industry is geared towards tourism, so almost 12.6% of its population works either directly or indirectly for the tourism sector (1.8 million workers employed directly and 1.2 million workers employed indirectly).
With riots in the streets, and a political lurch from secularism to a regime dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s not surprising that Egypt’s 14.7 million tourists in 2010, dropped to 9.8 million in 2011. The numbers recovered a little last year (11.5m) but it has left the country divided on how to entice tourists back, and more importantly, who to entice back.
Radical Salafi Muslim groups have been calling for a ban on alcohol and women wearing swimsuits in Egypt. However the Daily Telegraph quotes Egypt’s Minister of Tourism, Hisham Zaazou, also attending the Arab Travel Market in Dubai:
“Bikinis are welcome in Egypt and booze is still being served. We had talks with these Salafi groups and now they understand the importance of the tourism sector, but still you have some individuals that are not from the leadership saying these things.”
They are not just saying these things. Last week Les Rois hotel in Hurghada opened to the sound of breaking glass as bottles of alcohol were smashed in celebration.
The hotel does not serve alcohol, has separate male and female swimming pools, and will not be providing any services which violate Islamic Sharia law. eTurboNews reports that the hotel’s Executive Director, Abdel Baset Amr, hopes to attract “a new kind of tourist”, specifically those coming from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf and other parts of Egypt. “As the number of tourists coming from Europe has dropped,we need to replace those numbers with tourists from other Arab countries.”
He’s not alone in thinking that. Where tourist numbers have begun to pick up again after the Arab Spring, the returning visitors have not been coming from the West, but from the Middle East itself. The UAE witnessed a substantial increase in 2012 with an estimated 11 million tourist arrivals. The UAE’s neighbour, Saudi Arabia, was the top source for inbound tourism, with 1,500,000 tourists, and according Euromonitor International’s Senior Research Analyst, Sana Toukanto, that number is predicated to double over the next five years.
Toukan explained that the UAE offers a culturally similar but more relaxed tourist destination for Saudis and is particularly popular amongst the growing young population: “The UAE promotes itself as a luxury shoppers’ paradise, with elaborate destination malls, shopping festivals, no sales tax and lower prices than in many surrounding countries.”
Meanwhile, Egypt’s Tourism Minister, not a member of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood, is left dancing on the head of a pin as he tries to appease Islamic enthusiasts by enticing more visitors from Arab countries with Islamic tourism ‘products’ AND encourage tourists back from Europe and North America.
At the same time he was making the ‘Booze & Bikinis’ statement for Western ears and promoting a ministry plan to install cameras in popular tourism locations and provide live stream online showing the “calm and stable state they are in”, he was also announcing a range of incentives and offers that will be provided by the Egyptian tourism sector to Arab families during the upcoming summer season, the holy month of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr.
His goal is to restore visitor numbers to 2010 levels and the year has started well so far. Early stats for the first three months of 2013 saw a 14.6% increase on the first quarter of 2012. “We will be concentrating our efforts on various global markets”, he said, including new markets in South America (Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Mexico) and Asia (Malaysia, China, India, Korea and Vietnam), “and in particular the Arab markets, as the number of Arab tourists amounted for 520,000 this year which reflects an increase of 7.5% compared to the first quarter of 2012.”
If he is to succeed in restoring 2010 levels, Egypt will need all those potential visitors because Western tourists may require more than the video live streams and expert opinion from the likes of Matthew Teller to entice them back.
What do you think? Will Western tourist flock back to Egypt? Will its tourism sector thrive? What about other North African countries like Tunisia or Libya (it has a vast tourism potential with its long Mediterranean coast and Roman antiquities)?
Oh, and… If you were a fundamentalist with terrorist intent, wouldn’t the site of a reassuring tourism webcam be a prime target??
Hatshepsut’s temple in 2008 (top) – Flickr/Malcolm_Sweeny
Hatshepsut’s temple in 2011 – Flickr/DeborahTurner