Egypt: The State of Tourism

Owen Freeman

Years of headline-grabbing tragedies are taking a toll on what was once a robust industry.

Egypt of memory, the country I first saw in 1971, was a magical place filled with contrasts. There was vast poverty and great wealth, splendid avenues and ugly slums, the grassy banks of the Nile and endless desert. 

I remember sailing up the Nile between Luxor and Aswan, 125 miles to the south, and exploring the tombs and temples of those who ruled there—Amenhotep, Akhenaton, Ramses, Hatshepsut. I remember wandering the jagged alleys and shops of Khan al-Khalili, the famed bazaar, and sipping sweet tea with fellow journalists at Fishawi’s Café.

But my strongest memory is of the people. Egyptians smiled with the confidence of a populace secure in an unshakable 5,000-year-old identity. And in Cairo and the other cities hugging the Nile for access to water and life, there were people everywhere—thronging the streets, suspended from the window frames of crowded buses, walking hand-in-hand along the river, haggling in souks. I remember the gaudy prostitutes near the city’s grand, often overbooked hotels. Tourists, like Egyptians, were everywhere. And they came from everywhere—Germany, France, England, India, and neighboring Arab countries. 

Last November I returned twice to a different Egypt. There were more Egyptians than ever before—90 million, compared to 34 million in 1971—but the tourists were mostly gone. Russia and Britain, from which most of them had come, had suspended flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt’s top sun-and-surf resort city in the southern Sinai, after what is widely believed to be a bomb destroyed a Russian jetliner, killing all 224 people aboard. Moscow and London were airlifting stranded tourists from the town and advising citizens not to travel there. The U.S. embassy in Cairo, which had already barred its employees from traveling to “border zones” under Egyptian military control, and nearly all of the Sinai Peninsula, added Sharm el-Sheikh to its diplomat no-go list until the cause of the plane crash was determined. Because “terrorist attacks can occur anywhere in the country,” the warning still stated as of mid-January, the embassy urged American citizens “to carefully consider the security implications of travel outside of the greater Cairo metropolitan area.”

Overnight, a vital source of hard currency and jobs evaporated. Three million Russians visited Egypt in 2014, 1.5 million of whom went to Sharm el-Sheikh; 750,000 of the 1 million British tourists also stayed there that year. But Cairo, too, was dramatically affected. Hotels in the capital were two-thirds empty and restaurants closed early. The Khan’s shops were deserted. So was Fishawi’s.

Across Cairo at the Great Pyramid, only three buses were parked in the giant lot adjacent to the oldest, most spectacular of the Seven Wonders of the World. Normally there would have been 50. Ahmad, a camel driver for 46 years, one of around 3,000 workers whose families depend on Pyramid tourism, waited forlornly for tourists willing to pay almost anything to have their photos taken atop a camel in front of the Sphinx or the Pyramids. 

In Upper, or southern, Egypt, only a fraction of some 300 cruise boats that once sailed the Nile between Luxor and Aswan operated last year, my tour guide told me, an observation confirmed by Abercrombie & Kent, the leading high-end-tourism operators in Egypt. And hotels there were less than half-filled. In 2010 some 6,000 tourists a day would often wait up to five hours to enter the main tombs of the Valley of the Kings.

Egyptians are fond of saying that tourism in their country may fall ill, but it never dies. Perhaps not. But devastated by five years of political turmoil, compounded by growing chaos throughout the Middle East, tourism, a key pillar of Egypt’s economy, is, if not dead, seriously ailing. And because of the increasing regional strife and Egypt’s own missteps, the patient shows little sign of reviving anytime soon.

Tourism reached record levels in 2010 with 14.7 million visitors and $12.5 billion in revenue. But it began tumbling soon after Hosni Mubarak was ousted as president, in 2011, after some 30 years in power, by a youth-led Arab Spring mass revolt that swept through much of the Middle East. An incompetent but freely elected Islamist Muslim Brotherhood government succeeded him. It, too, was replaced, a year later, again by popular demand, this time by the military. Desperate for stability and security, Egyptians—especially the country’s more than 4 million Coptic Christians, the largest surviving Christian population in the increasingly Islamist Middle East—elected as president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army general who had ousted the Brotherhood government in which he had served as defense minister. 

Following his election in May 2014, President Sisi took such unpopular but essential steps as cutting fuel subsidies, which were distorting the economy. He launched ambitious projects—a year-long $8 billion expansion of the Suez Canal, another key source of revenue and foreign currency—and announced plans to develop agriculture, housing, infrastructure, and education, and boost employment in a country that must create 700,000 new jobs a year to keep pace with its population growth. 

To reassure Coptic Christians, he became the first Egyptian president to celebrate a Christmas Eve Mass at Cairo’s main cathedral. Addressing Muslim scholars around the same time, he rejected the extreme interpretations of Islam embraced by the Islamic State and like-minded jihadists and called for a “revolution” in Islam, a bold and, many warned, dangerous move. 

But citing security and his “wars on terror” against the Islamic State in the western desert on the border with Libya, and in the Sinai, where jihadists have embedded themselves among discontented Bedouins, he also cracked down on dissent—jailing tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, leaders of the secular Arab Spring protests that had toppled Mubarak, journalists, and other government critics. Last fall he even briefly arrested and threatened to jail a prominent businessman whose newspaper had challenged his policies.  

But buoyed by the Egyptian public’s hatred of the Islamists and support for al-Sisi’s ambitious vision (“Egypt is back,” declared one of the slogans produced by a government-sponsored $68 million public relations campaign) plus some $30 billion in aid from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and various states opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood and other militant Islamists, tourism began to revive. In 2014, the number of travelers to Egypt had fallen below 10 million, but by mid-2015, tourism revenues, accounting for roughly 10 percent of the GDP, rose to $3.3 billion for the first half of the year, according to government data. 

Then disaster struck. In addition to an average of more than 100 attacks per month over the first half of 2015, many of them uncovered by the press, two policemen were gunned down at the Pyramids last June. Days later, there was a suicide bombing at the Temple of Karnak, in Luxor—the first “martyrdom” operation against tourists there since 58 were killed during a 1997 attack.

In September, Egyptian planes mistakenly killed eight Mexican tourists in the western desert, not far from where Egypt has been battling the smuggling of weapons and militant Islamists from strife-ridden Libya. The government initially blamed the incident on the tourists and has continued to hold responsible the Egyptian company escorting them. “The company requested permission to take one route and took another,” the American-educated tourism minister, Hisham Zaazou, told me last November. He said he has canceled the company’s license and taken other steps to ensure that it pays reparations to the attack’s victims. The company disputes the government’s charges. While Egypt has expressed regret for murdering tourists whom it had mistaken for terrorists, it has yet to accept responsibility.

Then came the Russian plane crash, the second disaster involving foreign tourists in less than two months. Though ISIS claimed to have exploded the plane by planting a soda can filled with explosives aboard the jet, and both Russian and British officials said they believed that the plane had been blown up, Egypt has staunchly resisted assertions that the crash was the result of a bombing rather than mechanical failure.

“Egypt is rhetorically in denial,” said an Egyptian journalist who asked not to be identified because of the government’s growing repression of skeptical voices. “Given the importance of tourism to Egypt’s economy, it has been saying one thing and doing another.”

Indeed, Minister Zaazou outlined in some detail steps Egypt has taken to protect tourists. And I was able to verify some of what he told me during my visits to Cairo last fall. The government, he said, has bolstered security at its 13 international airports by conducting additional random screenings; it has welcomed foreign transportation officials to monitor safety procedures and has added more narcotics and explosives detectors and trained dogs in order to address concerns about lax security, especially at Sharm el-Sheikh. In December, Cairo announced that it had hired Britain-based Control Risks to monitor security measures in the country’s airports. Other improvements are obvious. Metal detectors abound—at hotels, museums, and other major tourist attractions. Armed officials now guard embassies and other key terrorism targets. 

“Egypt is safe,” Zaazou said. “We’re determined to do whatever it takes to reassure our allies that it is. We recognize that we are suffering from a false perception of Egypt, but also that we must accept the reality of this perception and change it.” 

Much depends on the success of Zaazou’s efforts. Some 9.3 million tourists generated $6.1 billion in revenue in 2015. The Sisi government is continuing to pursue plans to accommodate 20 million tourists annually by 2020, the official goal. Cairo is seeking foreign investment for two major projects, a resort at the Red Sea and another on the Mediterranean. Marriott is undertaking a multimillion-dollar restoration of the state-owned Mena House hotel, at the foot of the Pyramids, which now has only a 38 percent occupancy, said Tarek Lotfy, assistant director of sales and marketing. In downtown Cairo, Marriott has just renovated another masterpiece, the historic Nile Hilton, now a Ritz-Carlton hotel.

Egyptians know that their future depends on the return of foreign travelers. Despite the terrorism and chaos around them, the spirit of forbearance I first encountered 45 years ago has not totally disappeared. Nor has their good humor. Yes, Egyptians are tired, overburdened by sheer numbers and the dilapidation of their ancient country, as well as by disappointments prompted by five years of political turmoil at home and around them. But Egypt has overcome far more, they are quick to tell me. “Egypt is eternal,” said Lotfy. “We are the mother of the world. People will not shun their mother forever. The world will return to us.” 

See our complete special report, Traveling in Troubled Times »