Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Egypt Looks to Return of Russian Flights to Aid Tourism Recovery

Egypt - temple of Abu Simbel
A picture taken on October 22, 2018, shows tourists at temple of Abu Simbel, south of Aswan in upper Egypt. Photo AFP

Egypt’s tourism industry is recovering slowly but steadily following years of social unrest and several major terrorist attacks. Once a major source of foreign currency, tourists are also crucial for the country’s economic recovery. Despite several setbacks, the signs are promising.

In the first half of 2018, around 5 million tourists visited Egypt, bringing in $4.8 billion in tourism revenues, a 77 per cent increase compared to the same period in 2017. In 2010, before the 2011 revolution, the total number of tourists was 14.7 million. By the end of 2018, Egypt hopes to earn $9 billion in tourism revenues, compared to $7.7 billion in 2017.

The tourism industry has been hit several times. The first blow was dealt by the social upheaval directly after the revolution. In 2012, numbers were up again, but the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in the summer of 2013 and the months of violent protests that followed kept tourists away.

The hardest blow came after Islamic State militants operating in the Sinai Peninsula downed a plane carrying over 200 Russian tourists in October 2015. A month earlier, the Egyptian army had mistakenly killed a group of Mexican tourists and their guides, mistaking their convoy for a fleeing terrorist group. After the downing of the plane, Russia suspended flights to Egypt, demanding the country improve its airport security.

Egypt has since taken extensive measures to adhere to the Russian demands. Flights from Moscow to Cairo were reinstated in April 2018, but the more important flights to the tourist resorts on the Red Sea such as Hurghada and Sharm el-Sheikh are still on hold.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin met in mid-October to discuss the matter. Putin said after the meeting that Egypt had done “everything necessary to enhance flight security” and that Russia will “try to resume charter flights along those routes in the nearest time”. However, no concrete agreement was made about when flights would resume.

Besides security, Egypt has tried several other ways to boost tourism. The Ministry of Tourism invested in large campaigns to promote tourism, and parliament approved a new law that imposed fines on sellers who harass tourists. Egypt is notorious for aggressive sellers at sites such as pyramids and temples, which affect the experience of foreign tourists. The Ministry of Antiquities has instigated continuous excavation works that enable it to frequently announce new archaeological discoveries. As Fanack wrote previously, the ministry has successfully maximized media attention for these discoveries.

Ahmed Adel is positive about the tourism rebound. The executive director of Citico travel, a small tour operator located near Cairo’s Tahrir Square, he said that tours to Luxor and Aswan, both on the Nile River, are almost fully booked. “In recent years it was mostly local tourists making Nile cruises, now there are more foreigners,” he told Fanack. He also noted that cruise and tour companies stopped selling to the local market, freeing up spaces for foreign visitors.

The season started early this year, with a Portuguese couple booking a Nile cruise in August, Adel said, adding, “The government is working on infrastructure around Sharm el-Sheikh, Hurghada and Marsa Matrouh, making them more accessible for tourists.”

Egypt’s Mediterranean coast is also emerging as a tourist destination, attracting an increasing number of foreigners alongside Egyptians. “Mostly Gulf Arabs,” said Adel.

Most of Adel’s customers come from the Arab world, primarily Saudis, Kuwaitis, Iraqis and Yemenis. Sharm el-Sheikh is popular with Ukrainians, who have overtaken Russians since the flight ban. In addition, Adel has “one European file” per week.

However, he acknowledged that business is not as good as before 2011. “It will take a few more years to reach that level again, but at least this year is much better than the ones before.”

The Ministry of Tourism was not available to comment on when it expects the tourism industry to recover to pre-2011 levels.

This may be difficult to predict anyway, as the recovery has faced several setbacks in recent months. In August, a British couple died while on holiday in Hurghada. The authorities initially said that preliminary investigations had shown that the couple died from natural causes, but later it appeared there had been a high level of bacteria in the hotel that could cause “toxic shock”. While the international hotel chain Steigenberger seems primarily at fault, this sort of negative coverage damages the image of the country’s tourism industry as a whole.

In October, a story made headlines about the repatriated corpse of a British man who had died – of natural causes – while on holiday in Egypt that was missing its heart and kidneys. Illegal organ trafficking is thriving in Egypt, and it is suspected that a local doctor removed the organs during a postmortem examination. Egypt denied organ theft had taken place.

Looking ahead, a major boost to the tourism sector is expected from the new museum being built next to the pyramids at Giza. The Grand Egyptian Museum is set to host 100,000 artefacts currently on display or in storage in the Egyptian Museum in central Cairo.

The partial opening of the museum is scheduled for the first quarter of 2019, but this date has been delayed multiple times since the beginning of the project in 2008.

If Egypt’s tourism industry is to reach pre-2011 levels again, it is crucial that no new terrorist attacks take place and Russian flights to the Red Sea resorts are reinstated.

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