Friday, February 4, 2011

Egyptian Tourism's Long Road Back

There are many considerations besides travel and tourism in the present civil unrest in Egypt, but travel will loom large under any new government, regardless of what form it eventually takes or who runs it. The reason: Money. Egypt depends to a considerable extent on spending by international visitors to combat its national budget deficit and help raise living standards in what is still largely a poor country.

Government officials are well aware of this. On Feb. 3, the British national newspaper The Guardian ( ran a story under the headline "Egypt's Vice-President Complains Rioting is Bad for Business.'' That would be Omar Suleiman, the recently appointed no. 2 in Hosni Mubarak's embattled regime, who has also served as Egypt's intelligence chief. According to the story, Suleiman claimed Egypt lost at least $1 billion USD through the first nine days of what is now an 11-day-old, pro-democracy uprising.

The Guardian also reported that "Tui Travel, Europe's biggest travel company ... has cancelled all holiday bookings for Egypt from Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, but is still running holidays booked in the UK for Red Sea resorts such as Sharm el-Sheikh 'in line with government advice.' This means that, at present, UK customers will not get a refund if they cancel their trip.''

The battle over the country's future naturally, if temporarily, overshadows other topics. But the disruption to businesses such as hotels, restaurants, tour operators, taxi companies and others is profound. According to The Guardian, "a lack of trade and tourism, which accounts for 11 percent of GDP, would send tax revenues into a downward spiral, making the budget deficit worse.'' About 12 percent of Egypt's workforce is employed in the tourism sector. In a bizarre twist, government officials blamed now-idle tour guides from the Giza Pyramids for riding charging camels into the masses of protestors camping out in downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Hotels are under great stress. They host many of the estimated 1 million tourists who reportedly fled Egypt or are trying to flee in the face of flight cancellations and chaos at Cairo International Airport and elsewhere. High-end international hotels such as the Ramses Hilton, walking distance from Tahrir Square and major tourist attractions such as the Egyptian Museum, have gained unwanted attention in news reports that say foreign reporters have been rousted from their rooms or confined to their rooms, their equipment confiscated by pro-Mubarak forces who demonstrators say are sent or at least tolerated by the government. Other hotels with foreign reporters or tourists have also reportedly been targeted.

There are 91 hotels with a cumulative 21,923 rooms in Cairo, according to STR Global Data. These hotels generate badly needed revenue and provide local jobs as well as serve, in normal times, as oases of relative calm in the hustle and bustle of Egypt's capital and largest city. The United Nations World Tourism Organization, citing Egypt's tourism ministry, reports that travelers spent $11.6 billion USD in 2009. That's even more than the $10.2 billion USD in taxes generated by the Suez Canal.

Even in normal times, Cairo hotels typicially have X-ray machines outside the main lobby, similar to the screening devices at major airports, plus other highly visible security. Some of this may be more theater than anything. In 2008, while attending an international aviation conference and staying at the Hilton Pyramids Golf Resort in the western Cairo suburb 6th of October City, I saw a lone uniformed security guard fast asleep at his station.

For now, the useful Web site reports that Hilton Worldwide has issued a statement saying:

"The well-being, safety and security of our guests and team members are of paramount importance and our hotels across Egypt are making every effort to ensure we deliver the highest level of security. We have implemented additional security procedures at all our hotels across Egypt, particularly Cairo, and our teams are working around the clock to take care of our guests, including those who have had to extend their stay due to flight disruptions ... We are receiving a number of cancellation requests for hotels, primarily those in Cairo, and we are waiving cancellation fees for upcoming reservations. We are reviewing and updating our cancellation policy as the situation progresses.''

The site cites Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, and Marriott International as also saying they are implementing policies to deal with the crisis.

However all this plays out, it will be a long road back for Egyptian tourism. Human lives, core prinicples and billions of dollars are at stake for this country - which endured a 1997 terrorist attack on tourists in Luxor that took 58 lives - to re-establish order so that travelers can enjoy the awe-inspiring antiquites and lively contemporary attractions of modern Egypt. No one knows how soon that hard-earned reputation for safety and hospitality will return.

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