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Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 17 - 02 - 2011

Tourism took the hardest blow in the course of the revolution, Sherine Nasr reports
"When news about the uprising in Tunisia came, the Canadian group I escorted were worried what impact that could have on Egypt. But I was affirmative that Egypt was safe and secure," said Ihab Reda, a tour guide, who laments the effect the 25 January Revolution had on the tourism high season this year. But he recognises that "it is not the revolution but lack of security that sent a bad signal to tourists."
Of all the economy sectors, tourism has remained resilient in the face of the late crisis recession. In 2010, 15 million tourists visited the country. Tourism contributed six per cent of the nation's GDP with $13 billion in revenues in 2010. But the latest events have proved devastating to Egypt's most significant hard currency earner.
According to official statements, some one million tourists have departed the country within the first 10 days, causing losses estimated at billions.
"Tourists in the country left and tour operators abroad cancelled all trips to Egypt for at least two months ahead," said Gena Riad from Grand Plaza Travel, who works with the Italian market, one of the biggest European tourist exporters to Egypt. Riad added that governments have warned tour operators abroad against organising trips even to the remote Red Sea resorts of Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada on the grounds that "it is highly risky to be in the country for the time being." Moreover, insurance companies are no longer insuring individuals or groups visiting the country.
The events have hit one of the busiest tourist seasons of the year. "January and February are among the busiest months, not only in the Red Sea resorts, but also in Luxor and Aswan where it is the perfect time to go on a Nile cruise," said Riad, adding that hotels in different tourist destinations have shut down while Nile cruisers have parked along the Nile bank.
According to one Meridien Heliopolis Hotel employee who preferred to remain anonymous, occupancy rate at this time of the year would normally exceed 107 per cent.
"It is normal to be overbooked this time of the year. We would normally turn away guests until more rooms are available," said the source, adding that the occupancy rate has shrunk to less than seven per cent, mainly including news reporters present to cover the events. "Economically, it is difficult to operate in these circumstances."
In an attempt to rescue a sinking ship, many initiatives have been taken in different directions as there have been calls on foreign embassies to lift travel bans to the country. Foreign tour guides, working seasonally in Egypt, have established many groups on Facebook to encourage tourists to come to Egypt. On their part, hotel owners in Sharm El-Sheikh invited the BBC news agency to investigate the situation, but BBC declined at the last moment. News about Ahmed Shafik, prime minister of the caretaker government meeting with representatives from the tourist sector to study the latest repercussions on the sector, were reported but have not materialised yet. Nevertheless, there have been calls to give due priority to supporting charter flights to Red Sea resorts of Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh, being safer destinations for tourists.
"So far, none of these initiatives has borne fruit. If tourists have other countries as an option, why choose a high risk destination," said Reda.
The latest repercussions in the tourist sector have had a domino effect on other activities and sectors. Perhaps worst are reports about layoffs of large numbers of employees in hotels and tourist companies in various locations around the country.
"I must admit that part of the employees have been laid off," said Riad, who affirmed that sacking staff has become a common feature among many Red Sea resorts.
Other tourist establishments gave their employees an unpaid leave. "We have been sent on an open vacation. I have only a 21-day vacation per year and I have been compelled to take it. I am not sure what will happen next. I think we will be sent away," said the Meridien employee.
Although losses from the tourist sector have been estimated at $3 billion so far, it is premature to assess the actual volume of losses because tourism involves a multitude of activities and professions.
For example, transport companies have been negatively affected by the current situation. "Since the beginning of the revolution, we have almost been out of business. That was usually a time when we rented more buses and vehicles than those we have in order to face the load of the tourist movement," said Sameh Binyamen, transport manager of La Signorina Transport Travel, who added that drivers will face hard times because they receive small salaries and depend entirely on tips for the bulk of their income.
Activity in Old Cairo's and Giza's tourist bazaars also froze, leaving handfuls of families out of business.
"I'm afraid these categories and others can be the source of considerable social unrest if the situation was not improved soon," said Reda, who added that tour guides are no exception.
"We are now jobless because our work is seasonal. Unless the security situation in the country is improved, there is no hope tourism will catch up with the coming season," said Reda.


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