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Originally published Thursday, May 8, 2014 at 3:01 PM

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Egypt’s tourism industry grows desperate amid long turmoil

Three years of upheaval is starving once-thriving visitor trade in land of pyramids

The New York Times


CAIRO — “We’ve missed you,” Egypt’s ministry of tourism says in its new advertising campaign, a plaintive plea for summer visitors from wealthy countries in the Persian Gulf.

That is putting it mildly. For three years now, political turmoil has scared many travelers away from Egypt, leaving millions of people whose livelihoods depend on visitors desperate for any sign of an end to the most sustained tourism crisis anyone here can recall.

At Cosmos, a 37-year-old tour company in Cairo that used to serve up to 30,000 customers a year, Khaled M. Ismail, the company’s director of operations, said he had not booked a single visitor since May 2013. The company’s once-hectic headquarters are deserted most of the time: Employees come in only once a week, to pay the bills. “We’re not expecting any business until 2015,” Ismail said, sitting alone in his dark office one recent weekday.

The loss of tourism has taken a disastrous toll on the economy, starving the country of income and badly needed foreign currency. Now many people in Egypt talk not just about short-term pain but long-term damage, as workers forsake years of training and experience to hunt for new jobs outside the industry, and students abandon what had been the country’s most promising career track.

Others, though, are holding out, nervously watching their nest eggs dwindle as they wait for things to improve. “What was saved has been spent,” said Raafat Ferghani Khattab, a guide in Cairo who called tourism the family business.

Khattab, whose grandfather showed a Swedish king the sights in the early 20th century, said tourism was “the nerve system of the middle class.” It is not just families like his that are suffering, he said; the ripples from the crisis have affected people like the farmers who supply organic fruit to hotels, and even pharmacists with shops in resort areas. “They are back to square one,” he said.

There is little relief in sight. Egypt’s political struggles turned increasingly violent after the ouster of the elected Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, in July. Hundreds of protesters have been killed by the security services, and militants have carried out deadly attacks on soldiers, police officers and civilians. Holiday makers were directly caught up in violence for the first time in about three years in February, when militants bombed a bus filled with South Korean visitors in a Sinai resort town, killing four people.

Tourism officials who tried last year to persuade the world that fears about Egypt were overblown are turning now to increasingly imaginative marketing pitches, meant to sell a country that until recently sold itself.

Having given up on trying to attract business from the United States or many European countries, officials have focused instead on Arab tourists, hoping that regional goodwill and nostalgia for Egypt will trump concerns about safety. “They are comfortable here,” Rasha al-Azaizy, a tourism ministry spokeswoman, said of Arab visitors, who traditionally made up a fifth of Egypt’s tourists. The government is also taking aim at more unlikely markets, including Latvia, perhaps in the hope that adventurous tourists are to be found there.

In 2010, before the political crisis, almost 15 million foreign tourists visited Egypt, officials said; last year the figure fell to 9.5 million. Most of the visitors these days are beachgoers who avoid Cairo and other cultural destinations, limiting the reach of the money they spend. But the resort business is under threat, too, after the attack on the bus in Sinai, which was quickly followed by travel warnings from several European countries.

The crisis has been a boon to a trickle of travelers who have ignored the warnings and found five-star hotel accommodations available for a song close to prime beaches and historic sites.

At the same time, workers at Egypt’s most famous attractions have had to get used to an unsettling quiet. At the pyramids in Giza, hawkers seem to outnumber tourists most mornings by about 10 to 1. In the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, museum employees napped in their chairs one recent afternoon while a handful of people lingered around King Tutankhamen’s gleaming funerary mask, unhurried by any crowds.

Outside the building, dozens of soldiers and police officers stood guard next to armored vehicles and trucks, a visible reminder of the strife that has isolated the country. Some may have been there to protect the treasures and the tourists, but many were holding tear gas launchers, ready to disperse crowds in case protesters dared to march on Tahrir Square nearby.

Egypt will hold a presidential election in three weeks, which is expected to be won by Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the military takeover of the government in July and then served as defense minister and de facto leader of the country. His supporters pin great hopes on his presidency, saying that the popular military leader will bring a firm hand to Egypt’s spiraling crises, including the drop-off in tourism. El-Sissi has pointed to his background growing up in Cairo’s historic districts as evidence that he understands the industry.

Some of Egypt’s tour operators are skeptical, though, that the election will bring any immediate relief. In the past, tourism rebounded quickly from calamities, including deadly militant attacks on tourists, they say, but this time there is a broader loss of confidence in Egypt from overseas, a problem that clever slogans and confident leadership cannot easily repair.

In the garden outside the museum on a recent afternoon, desperate guides chased after a group of tourists from Thailand, only to learn that the Thais needed no guides, because they had brought along Egyptian friends to show them around. A shopkeeper in the museum lobby stood in his stall, among maps and guidebooks no one was buying, recalling the boom years, when “you couldn’t step a foot inside this museum.”

Alaa Mosaad, a 37-year-old tour operator who sat in a nearly empty patio restaurant, said he was afraid that the downturn in tourism “will last another three or four years.” Like many in the industry, Mosaad has taken up other work — in his case, teaching German — to pay the bills.

His colleague, Mohamed Atef, 30, noted that the succession of new governments over the last few years had each promised greater stability. But for all that, he said, “the situation of the country is getting worse.”

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