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Tourism: Cairo waits for the big spenders
On a warm sunny February day, buses steadily drop loads of tourists in front of the three Giza pyramids in Cairo.
The ticket booths barely have a moment of respite – a sight that had become a rarity since the 2011 uprising that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Before the political turmoil, our company used to have 3,000 to 4,000 tourists a month, now it is ten times less
For the country, whose economy and supply of foreign currency rely heavily on tourism, the past five years have been a struggle.
Before the crisis, the sector provided directly for four million people, more than 10% of Egypt’s work- force, and indirectly for an estimated 16 million.
The government of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has recently funded campaigns to bring back tourism.
Pro-government media propagate the idea that tourism is doing better since former defence minister Sisi became president in June 2014 and an air of stability returned.
Despite an increase in bombings before the Egyptian Economic Development Conference in mid-March, many embassies have lifted their travel warnings and airlines are increasing their flights.
“We learn about Egypt’s antiquities at school. We all long to see them for real,” says Paulo, an Italian businessman in his fifties who is in Cairo for a work trip.
“This appeal will never grow old,” he adds as he rests in a vast but still quite empty coffee shop after a visit to the pyramids.
According to the waiter traffic is still not as intense as it used to be and the visitors who come on day trips from beach resorts do not stay very long in Cairo.
In central Cairo, Tahrir Square has been renovated. Nothing remains of the tents that were once emblematic of the struggle during and after the Arab Spring uprisings that led to Mubarak’s downfall.
As clean as Cairo can be, the square is watched over carefully by swarms of traffic police and a couple of army tanks.
A green roundabout sits in the middle of the square with a solitary pole waving the Egyptian flag.
Even the much criticised martyrs’ monument, which the government put in place at the end of 2013 to try and reconcile official and revolutionary narratives, has disappeared.
Around the square, the Soviet-style government building The Mogamma stands alongside a mosque and the newly renovated Nile Ritz-Carlton hotel.
A new, massive underground car park leads to the huge and pink Egyptian Museum, its en- trance lined with security and army trucks.
A pedlar in front of the museum who sells pharaonic-design embroidered purses says: “Since Sisi came into power, tourists started coming back.”
Once out of earshot of potential informants, the 39-year-old trader adds: “Before, I used to get new batches of purses several times a day. Not now.”
He has been selling for the past 25 years after his morning job as a civil servant.
Behind the museum looms the darkened outline of the burned-out building that hosted Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
In the distance flows the River Nile, carrying huge, half-empty catering boats and many small craft lit with fairy lights and blasting Egyptian electro-pop music.
“As soon as Egypt stays out of the news for a while, tourists will flock back again,” says Albert Samir, traffic manager of one of the biggest Egyptian travel agencies, Nicolas Tours.
It plans trips across the country, from Cairo to the seaside resorts and the pharaonic sites in the south.
“Before the political turmoil, our company used to have 3,000 to 4,000 tourists a month, now it is ten times less. For the next Easter holidays, the bookings are over a thousand, which is better, but nothing like what we had before.”
Over in Old Cairo close to the historic Citadel is the Khan el-Khalili souk.
Packed with shops and kiosks, Khan el-Khalili is aimed squarely at tourists with its array of jewellery, antiques and souvenirs.
Calls to prayer from the nearby Al-Hussein Mosque intermingle with the calls from the hawkers and merchants.
Teapots and Islamic-designed bowls sit on shelves above shisha pipes, with maps of Egypt detailing the path of the river Nile on the walls behind them.
At the tills, key rings, postcards, pyramids and mini pharaoh heads line counters in an attempt to lure customers into impulse buys.
“[I] used to place orders every couple of weeks,” says Eid Ahmed Ali, who keeps a shop called Arabesque, filled with plates and scarves made in Egypt and China.
“Now I have been waiting for a year. Only the shops whose owners were from the area could afford to keep them open.”
Many hotels in downtown Cairo have also closed, hostel owner Dina Aboulsoud explains.
When Dina’s Hostel opened in 2009, it was renowned and busy.
Recently, Dina has struggled to pay the bills. “I only kept the hostel open because it meant a lot to me,” she says.
Her latest venture is a large restaurant with her trademark arty atmosphere, which she took over after it closed in 2012.
Its previous customer base was the tourists from the Marriott hotel who visited a nearby synagogue. Now Aboulsoud caters to Cairene hipsters.
Menna Elhamy, an Egyptologist and tour guide, explains: “There are far fewer tourists than there were before 2010.
The numbers have picked up in Sharm el- Sheikh but not really in Cairo and even less so in Aswan.
In 2011, we didn’t notice the slump immediately because many people didn’t cancel their bookings. But in 2014 it was really bad.”
Former tourism minister Hisham Zaazou says: “Tourism is about image, we need to sell a dream. And the Western public is very sensitive to human rights issues. In 2010, there were 14 million tourists who brought a net profit of E£10bn, and in 2014 there were still only 10 million tourists.”
He argues that the country could return to pre-revolution figures in 2015.
… and fewer roubles
Another problem for Egyptian tourism is the decrease in tourist spending.
Many tourism professionals complain that Russians, who constituted the bulk of tourists in resort destinations, are not among the highest spenders.
But even the Russian flow is drying up as the country’s economic crisis took its toll in early 2015.
A one-hour flight from Cairo or a six-hour bus ride on a safe and well-maintained road is Sahl Hasheesh on the Red Sea in Hurghada, a symbol of Mubarak-era crony real estate development.
There is no scarcity of water there and grass, trees and flowers brave the year-round heat.
Most of the sandy coast-line hosts private beaches.
Turquoise pools cascade inside concrete-walled and ochre-painted five-star hotels and residencies.
Golf carts plough through private beaches and yachts are at the ready to take visitors diving and snorkelling.
In Hurghada city, some of the resorts have known busier and more affluent times, but this is the age of inexpensive all-inclusive packages.
Restaurants, shops, swimming pools, irrigated gardens and nightclubs are all found inside the resorts, leaving business owners on the outside struggling to find customers.
A shopkeeper in town laughs: “We’ve had more Chinese tourists recently, but they don’t buy much – most of what we have is made in China,” including the so-called ‘traditional’ Egyptian belly-dancing costumes.
With continuing economic woes in Europe the face of tourism is changing.
At a gathering in Hurghada to celebrate the first Day of Arab Tourism in February, tour guides and travel agents watched a preview of an advert targeting Arab tourists.
Amid the dancers, singers, shopping malls, ritzy hotels and flower-waving, dark-eyed women, the country’s antiquities are hardly visible.
Tourists from the Gulf countries make up 20% of Egypt’s tourists. They have a well-earned reputation as big spenders.
Special resorts and hotels have been built to cater to conservative lifestyles, even in seaside resorts, though when travelling alone some visitors enjoy distinctly unconservative pleasures.
Looking further east, the Egyptian government is targeting one million Chinese tourists annually in the next few years.
The Chinese government has sped up the process of allowing charter flights, making the North African destination more accessible.
Tourism professionals say that Chinese visitors are good news as they are interested both in beach tourism and cultural tourism, the foundation on which the golden days of Egyptian tourism were built. ●