Hit by new unrest, Egypt's tourism industry worries over future between turmoil, Islamists

Associated Press

CAIRO - At Egypt's Pyramids, the desperation of vendors to sell can be a little frightening for some tourists.

Young men descend on any car with foreigners in it blocks before it reaches the more than 4,500 year-old Wonder of the World. They bang on car doors and hoods, some waving the sticks and whips they use for driving camels, demanding the tourists come to their shop or ride their camel or just give money.

In the southern city of Aswan, tour operator Ashraf Ibrahim was recently taking a group to a historic mosque when a mob of angry horse carriage drivers trapped them inside, trying to force them to take rides. The drivers told Ibrahim to steer business their way in the future or else they'd burn his tourist buses, he said.

Egypt's touts have always been aggressive — but they're more desperate than ever after nearly two years of devastation in the tourism industry, a pillar of the economy.

December, traditionally the start of Egypt's peak season, has brought new pain. Many foreigners stayed away because of the televised scenes of protests and clashes on the streets of Cairo in the battle over a controversial constitution.

Arrivals this month were down 40 per cent from November, according to airport officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

Tourism workers have little hope that things will get better now that the constitution came into effect this week after a nationwide referendum. The power struggle between Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and the opposition threatens to erupt at any time into more unrest in the streets.

More long term, many in the industry worry ruling Islamists will start making changes like banning alcohol or swimsuits on beaches that they fear will drive tourists away.

"Nobody can plan anything because one day you find that everything might be OK and another that everything is lost. You can't even take a right decision or plan for the next month," said Magda Fawzi, head of Sabena Management.

She's thinking of shutting down her company, which runs two hotels in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh and four luxury cruise boats on the Nile between the ancient cities of Luxor and Aswan. In one hotel, only 10 of 300 rooms are booked, and only one of her ships is operating, she said. She has already downsized from 850 employees before the revolution to 500.

"I don't think there will be any stability with this kind of constitution. People will not accept it," she said.

Tourism, one of Egypt's biggest foreign currency earners, was gutted by the turmoil of last year's 18-day uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Scared off by the upheaval, the number of tourists fell to 9.8 million in 2011 from 14.7 million the year before, and revenues plunged 30 per cent to $8.8 billion.

This year, the industry struggled back. By the end of September, 8.1 million tourists had come, injecting $10 billion into the economy. The number for the full year is likely to surpass 2011 but is still considerably down from 2010.

For the public, it has meant a drying up of income, given that tourism provided direct or indirect employment to one in eight Egyptians in 2010, according to government figures.

Poverty swelled at the country's fastest rate in Luxor province, highly dependent on visitors to its monumental temples and the tombs of King Tutankamun and other pharaohs. In 2011, 39 per cent of its population lived on less than $1 a day, compared to 18 per cent in 2009, according to government figures.

For the government, the fall in tourism and foreign investment since the revolution has worsened a debt crisis and forced talks with the International Monetary Fund over a $4.8 billion loan.

Morsi has promised to expand tourism, but hotel owners and tour operators say he has yet to make clear any plans.

Their biggest fear is new violence causing shocks like December's. Ibrahim, of the Eagle Travels tourism company, said that because of this month's protests, two German operators he works with cancelled tours. They weren't even heading to Cairo, but to the Red Sea, Luxor and Aswan, far from the unrest.

But some in the industry fear that, with the constitution's provisions strengthening implementation of Shariah, Islamists will ban alcohol or restrict dress on Egypt's beaches, which rival antiquities sites as draws for tourism. Officials from the Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, are vague about any plans.

Ultraconservative Salafis, who are key allies of Morsi, have been more direct.

Nader Bakkar, spokesman for the Salafi Nour Party, told a conference of tour guides in Aswan earlier this month that tourists should not be allowed to buy alcohol but could bring it with them and drink it in their rooms. Tourists should also be encouraged to wear conservative dress, he said.

"We welcome all tourists but we tell them ... there are traditions and beliefs in the country, so respect them," he said. "Most tourists will have no problem if you tell them" to bring their own alcohol.

One Salafi sheik earlier this year said the Pyramids and Sphinx should be demolished as anti-Islamic — like Afghanistan's then-Taliban rulers destroyed monumental Buddha statues in 2001. Bakkar dismissed the comments as the opinion of one cleric.

But tour guide Gladys Haddad sees the Salafis' attitude as a threat, saying the constitution should have said more to protect Egypt's pharaonic heritage. "We are talking about a civilization that they do not acknowledge. They see it as idolatrous."

"Why would a tourist come to a resort if he can't drink?" said Fawzi, of Sabena Management. "People are coming for tours and monuments, and to relax on the boats. If they feel that restriction, why should they come?"

Nahla Mofied of Escapade Travels said the Islamists might restrict what tourists can "wear and do" but, given its importance to the economy, "they may not destroy tourism fully."

Complicating attempts to draw tourists back is the lawlessness gripping Egypt the past two years. With police supervision low, tourist touts increasingly assault guides and even tourists to demand business. In September, 150 tour guides held a protest against attacks by vendors.

"We have struggled with this problem since before the revolution, but now the situation is completely out of control," Ibrahim said.

At the Giza Pyramids, police seem indifferent to the touts. Camel-riding police even join in, pushing tourists to take rides.

Gomaa al-Gabri, an antiquities employee, was infuriated at the sight, shouting, "You sons of dogs" and a slew of other insults at a policeman trying to get money off a tourist.

"They're trying to take away my income," said the father of 11. "In Mubarak's time we wouldn't dare talk to them like this. Now I can hit him with a shoe on his head and he can't speak."

For some tourists at the Pyramids, the chaos is part of the experience.

"I just love it," British tourist Brian Wilson said. "You can't blame people wanting to make money."

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