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Optimism looms over Egypt’s tourism future despite Islamists’ rise to power

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The fears of possible changes in Egypt’s policies under the new Islamist leadership have caused a certain amount of panic in the country’s tourism industry and set the scene for all sorts of problems.

Political instability and poor law and order problems that followed the Jan, 25, 2011 revolution have caused a decline in the number of tourists in the past 18 months. The non-ending turmoil led to the collapse of many travel companies.

However, the country’s top tourism official said that he expected an “unprecedented” influx in the number of tourists within the second half of 2012.

“I am very optimistic,” Egypt’s Tourism Minister Muneer Fakhry Abdul Nour told Al Arabiya on Friday when asked about his outlook for the period ahead.

“I think Egypt will witness an unprecedented increase in the number of tourists during the second half of this year, from July to December 2012, only if nothing disrupts the expected boost in tourism.”

According to the 2011 report of the International Tourism Organization, Egypt has left the club of the 20 top tourism countries, which it had joined in 2010. The report pointed out that in the one year of turmoil, Egypt fell from 18th place to 26. Egypt received 14.1 million tourists in 2010 .

Many of the tourism businesses, hotels, Nile cruises and even camel vendors offering rides at the Pyramids have been suffering drastically over the past one-and-a-half years. Many businesses have closed and many workers in the tourism industry were fired from their jobs.

Former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011 and the country has been ruled by a military council since then, until the election of the Islamist president, Mohammed Mursi, who took power on June 30, 2012.

“Now there is a big demand on our tourism product, which will be felt clearly during the Summer-Winter season of 2012. I expect a strong return of Spanish tourists, who prefer the summer as well as cultural tourism. Most Spanish tourists head to Luxor, Aswan and southern Egypt in general," he said.

“I also expect a big influx in the number of Japanese tourists. The Tourism Ministry has succeeded in resuming the operation of the Cairo-Tokyo air route, which is expected to double in its capacity within the coming months. We are also moving to inaugurate a new air route that will link Cairo to Osaka within the next few weeks. We are currently facing a large demand from Japan on our tourism product, thanks to the Tutankhamen exhibitions that were recently organized by the Ministry of Tourism in Osaka and proved to be very successful.” said Abdul Nour.

“We are also expecting a large increase in the number of tourists from eastern Europe in general, especially Russia and Poland, which will be boosted through the charter flights that will carry tourists directly to Hurghada, Sharm al-Sheikh and Marsa Alam.

“We are also expecting a capacity of the charter flights in the second half of 2012, especially from Germany and England, to exceed its recorded rates in 2010,” he noted, pointing out that all such indications were enough to let everyone feel optimistic about the future of tourism, “under the condition that nothing would happen to mess the optimistic atmosphere.”

Tourism is one of the most important sectors in the Egyptian economy and the source of income for approximately 20 percent of the labor force in the country.

The emergence of a politicized Islamist trend that coincided with the outbreak of the revolution had created a state of controversy over the possible application of certain conservative traditions, which tourists might have to observe while visiting the country.

Egypt was known throughout its history as a destination for tourists and travelers. Besides its unique religious and cultural monuments, Egypt enjoys a geographical location, and a moderate climate all year-round, along with its smooth vast coastlines and beaches with its unique treasures of coral reefs, providing the country with advantages of a competitive edge.

Newly-elected President Mursi, during his presidential campaign, had mentioned tourism in terms of cultural and safari related sectors. But those working in the tourism industry have reservations about the new President’s future approach regarding beach tourism, availability of alcohol, belly-dancing, night clubs … etc.

Egypt may capture the popular imagination for its Pharaonic ruins, but its beach tourism makes up for the majority of the industry’s revenues.

Unofficial statements previously released by Islamist figures or Muslim Brotherhood members caused much insecurity in the Egyptian tourism sector. Many statements came with suggestions of the imposition of a ‘conservative dress code’ on visitors. Other statements favored a focus on religious tourism rather than beach tourism. Some even went as far as suggesting a kind of segregation in beaches; in other words, specifying certain beaches for men and others for women.

When asked by Al Arabiya about whether cultural tourism is expected to flourish more than beach tourism within the period ahead, the Egyptian Tourism Minister ruled out the thought completely, arguing that beach tourism contributes 80 percent of Egyptian tourism in general.

“However, I expect a marked increase in cultural tourism, especially with the resuming of the long Nile cruises [from Cairo to Luxor and Aswan]. We are currently developing all anchors along the Nile to serve those cruises. We are also trying to promote the charter flights to southern Egypt, especially to Aswan International Airport. The Ministry of Tourism will pay all the landing expenses of the charter flights to Aswan, only as a kind of promotion for tourism in that part of the country,” said the country’s top tourism official.

With a drying up of investments in the country that has been rocked by political turmoil for 18 continual months, foreign currency reserves plummeting 60 percent and unemployment soaring to its highest levels along with inflation; tourists may just be the country’s biggest savior -- if it doesn’t scare them away.