Will Ancient Egypt breathe new life into ailing tourism sector? 

By Sherif Tarek
Posted on Wednesday, 22 December 2021 12:12, updated on Tuesday, 11 January 2022 09:10

The Avenue of the Sphinxes reopens in Luxor
Fireworks explode during the opening ceremony for the restored Avenue of the Sphinxes or Road of the Rams, a 3,000-year-old avenue that connects Luxor Temple with Karnak Temple, in Luxor, Egypt, November 25, 2021. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Egyptian authorities are counting on a cluster of recent discoveries and the inauguration of new and refurbished archeological sites and museums to revitalise a tourism sector that has been under duress ever since the 2011 Arab Spring revolution.

The opening of the well-preserved, 3,000-year-old Avenue of Sphinxes last month, more than 70 years after its discovery in Upper Egypt’s Luxor, was the latest prominent step in a series of such efforts.

Lined with sphinxes and ram-headed statues, the 2,700-metre-long avenue links the temples of Karnak and Luxor, extending north to south across the ancient city of Thebes. It was built over the course of 1,000 years, from the reign of King Tutankhamun until that of King Nectanebo I.

“It is one of the most important archeological sites ever in Egypt,” Mostafa el-Sagheer, the head of Karnak’s antiquities department, who supervised the excavation of the avenue’s last stretch, tells The Africa Report.

‘Hundreds of archeological discoveries’

With more open archeological sites than any other city in Egypt, Luxor has witnessed discoveries that made headlines around the world in recent years. These include the 2019 retrieval of 30 pristine wood coffins dating back 3,000 years at El-Assasif cemetery, the site of burials from several ancient Egyptian dynasties on the west bank of the Nile River.

However, the southern city isn’t the only place in Egypt where antiquities have been unearthed. There have been ‘hundreds of archeological discoveries’ and openings of new sites across the nation since 2016, Sagheer says, including the discovery of a mysterious granite sarcophagus in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria and the Saqqara tombs in Giza.

People are already asking about when the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum will be in order to book their flights.

“The inauguration of new archeological sites greatly contributes to cultural tourism because it diversifies the touristic product,” he says, thereby reviving Egyptian tourism.

Aside from remittances, foreign investments and the Suez Canal, tourism constitutes one of Egypt’s key sources of hard currency — something the most populous Arab country is constantly in need of to fulfill its foreign debt service, buy basic foodstuffs, and maintain a stable exchange rate.

The inauguration ceremony for the Avenue of Sphinxes, which reportedly saw Luxor hotels fully booked for days, was the second such glitzy event in six months.

In April, a ‘royal procession’ paraded 22 mummies in Cairo from the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to the new National Museum of Egyptian Civilisation in the old Islamic city of Fustat. The arrival of the royal mummies marked the inauguration of the museum, whose cost amounted to LE2bn ($127m).

Even more anticipated is the opening of the LE15bn ($955m) Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM), so far slated for 2022, after repeated postponements. Located near the Giza Pyramids, the GEM is set to be Egypt’s most iconic museum, spanning 168,000 square metres, almost triple the size of the Louvre in Paris.

“People are already asking about when the opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum will be in order to book” their flights, says Hossam Anwar, a hotel reservation agent at Cairo-based travel agency Intourist Egypt.

Omicron setback

Though there are no official statistics on where tourists are from, Anwar says large swaths of visitors who are interested in cultural tourism are from Western Europe, including Germany, France and Belgium. Flocks of tourists from those countries have started to return to the North African nation since last summer, he says.

However, despite eking out gains in 2021, global tourism remains quite volatile amid the coronavirus and its new Omicron strain, which has prompted new travel restrictions that have dissuaded tourists from embarking on international trips.

For instance, Anwar points out that earlier this month, France announced that everyone flying in from Egypt is required to take a diagnostic test before arrival.

“This will make a potential visitor [from France] think twice,” he says, because it means they’ll be “wasting a whole day to do the PCR in Egypt” — a significant amount of time for someone who’s only planning a one-week vacation.

On top of the $40-$50 cost of the test, there are additional insurance fees, extra hotel nights and flight changes for those who test positive.

Roller coaster ride

The Omicron variant is just the latest in a long line of hits on Egypt’s tourism sector over the past decade. In 2010, Egypt attracted more than 14.7 million international tourists, the most in its history.

Since then, the vital tourism sector – in which nearly 2 million Egyptians work – has been dealt consecutive heavy blows amid political upheaval and terrorist attacks.

The worst impact probably came from the bombing of a Russian airliner that was leaving the famous Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh. All 224 people onboard were killed in the November 2015 attack, which a local Islamic State affiliate claimed responsibility for.

The following year, the number of tourists halved to fewer than 5.4 million, the lowest in more than a decade.

However, the tourism sector witnessed steady recovery in the following three years, amid a relentless clampdown on terrorism. In 2019, the sector saw a record $13bn in revenues, more than double the average annual revenue from the Suez Canal.

Speculation abounds that, having received more than 13 million tourists in 2019, Egypt was on its way to surpassing its 2010 record, had it not been for the pandemic. Last year, the country welcomed around 3.5 million tourists for a measly $4bn in revenue.

According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, the contribution of Egypt’s travel & tourism sector to the nation’s GDP fell from $32bn (8.8%) in 2019 to $14.4bn (3.8%) in 2020 — a  55% year-on-year plunge.

‘Huge pent-up demand’

Today, there are multiple reasons to believe that yet another Egyptian tourism rebound could be on the horizon as the world slowly adapts to life with Covid-19.

“It is notable that more people are feeling more confident to travel around as long as they [are] vaccinated, with huge pent-up demand for travel after last year’s lockdowns,” says Mohamed Abu Basha, head of macroeconomic analysis at the Cairo-based EFG Hermes, Egypt’s largest investment bank.

Russia was Egypt’s largest market before the travel ban and is likely to quickly restore that position given its competitive pricing.

“We expect tourism revenues to recover to $10bn” in the fiscal year ending next June “and rise further to $13bn in FY23,” he says. “We forecast tourism revenues will stand at circa 2.5% of GDP in FY22 with the share rising gradually to 3% of GDP in the coming couple of years.”

In July, Deputy Minister of Tourism Ghada Shalaby told Reuters that tourism revenues were estimated between $3.5bn and $4bn in the first half of 2021, as Egypt received around 3.5 million tourists during the same period, equivalent to the number for all of last year.

The resumption of Russian flights to Egyptian Red Sea resorts in August for the first time since the 2015 plane bombing is expected to have further boosted the beleaguered Egyptian tourism sector in the second half of 2021.

“Russia was Egypt’s largest market before the travel ban and is likely to quickly restore that position given its competitive pricing,” says Abu Basha. This “bodes well for affordability levels for the mass Russian tourists,” who mostly frequent the Red Sea resorts.

Vaccination campaign

Meanwhile, Egypt’s vaccination campaign has started to pick up this year compared to 2020, when the country struggled to provide vaccine doses.

Egypt recently enforced measures to speed up vaccinations, including denying unvaccinated citizens entry to government buildings and increasing the number of medical facilities administering jabs. The fully inoculated now comprise more than 30% of the population, health ministry spokesperson Hossam Abdel Ghafar tells The Africa Report.

“The government has taken a good initiative to vaccinate [all] people working in the tourism sector, including Cairo, Red Sea resorts and Upper Egypt,” Abu Basha says. “This has boosted Egypt’s chances to attract tourism.”

“As for venues, the upcoming opening of the Grand Egyptian Museum is likely to be an important point of attraction considering the museum itself and the development of the surrounding areas,” he says. “The government is … working on reinvigorating downtown.”

In August, Egypt revealed that around $1.9bn has been allotted for refurbishment works in historic Cairo. This month, the government penned a LE3.5bn ($222.7m) agreement with a US consortium to reinvent the capital’s gigantic Tahrir Complex, once the epicentre of civil services, into a multipurpose administrative and recreational hub.

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