Tourists desert Egypt as protests rage

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The 2011 revolution that toppled Dictator Hosni Mubarak dealt a severe blow to the country’s tourist industry, once a mainstay of Egypt’s economy.

And things have gone from bad to worse since June, when violent protests broke out against President Mohamed Mursi. On July 3, the army ousted the Islamist leader, leading to further deadly violence and an ongoing standoff between the two sides.

The tour buses that lined the streets around the pyramids have disappeared.

“We hope to the Lord that he will bring back those busy days, because all of us rely on tourism alone,” said Gameel Hassan, who has run a shop near the pyramids selling papyrus prints for nearly 20 years.

Now, his shop is empty. Only a few tourists come each day to browse the hundreds of pictures of Egyptian gods and pharaohs that cover the walls.

“To bring tourism back, we need stability and security,” he said. “The parties must calm down and leave the president to rule the country in the way he sees fit,” he said, referring to the country’s new interim authorities.

Out in the street, Mahmoud Attiyah, who offers horseback tours of the pyramids, is glum about business.

“There have been no tourists coming from outside. From June 30 until now, there have been none,” he complained.

But Mursi’s removal cheered Attiyah. Like many of the vendors, he thought the Mursi government was harming Egypt’s tourist industry, which once accounted for some 10 percent of GDP.

Yet not everyone has been put off.

Two travelers, laden by backpacks, made their way past the gate to the pyramids. They were followed by a crowd of jostling vendors offering souvenirs and horse rides.

Ryan Gary and Ashley Westcott, from the U.S. state of Colorado, were unfazed by the State Department’s travel warnings about the country and alarming stories on the news.

“As long as you travel safe and are smart about the kind of decisions that you are making, a lot of times the people are a lot nicer than the media makes them out to be,” one said, beaming.

But tourists like Westcott and Gary are increasingly rare.

They have disappeared from the Khan el-Khalili bazaar in Cairo. This warren of narrow streets used to see coachloads of people coming to haggle over souvenirs, soak up the atmosphere and relax in cafes over a mint tea and a shisha (water pipe).

After dark, the area is crowded with Egyptians talking a stroll after the Iftar meal to break the Ramadan fast, but the foreigners are nowhere to be seen.

Hussam Manaf, 41, is a university professor in the mornings but, in the evenings, he runs the small Khan el-Khalili souvenir shop his father founded.

Surrounded by hundreds of alabaster pyramids, glass ornaments and papyrus scrolls, Manaf said only one or two tourists had visited his shop each day since June 30

He was adamant that the tourism ministry needed to do more to promote Egypt abroad.

“Where are the films showing Egypt outside of Egypt,” he asked, pointing out that other countries had done a far better job of promoting themselves.

“When you look around you see that, when they do film adverts, they show important places,” he said, amazed that the ministry was happy to stick to old clichés about the country.

“Tourism in Egypt is not only the pyramids,” he said, exasperated.

Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou acknowledged to AFP that the sector is suffering even more, as the current unrest is hitting the peak season.

“In the first 15 days of July 2013, Egypt welcomed 387,000 tourists compared with 515,000 tourists in the same period last year,” Zaazou said.

In 2010, the year before the revolution, Egypt attracted 14.7 million visitors, a record high. That plunged by nearly a third to around 10 million in 2011, and then rose to 11.5 million in 2012.

Zaazou said he had plans for a fresh PR offensive abroad, but added that getting countries to lift advisories against travelling to Egypt is his main aim.

“At this stage of the development of tourism in the world, a tourist won’t go abroad without travel insurance,” he said. Warnings issued by embassies and foreign ministries make it harder for them to get the insurance they need to travel to Egypt.

Zaazou said he was already talking to European ambassadors to lift the travel warnings in certain areas, such as Egypt’s pristine Red Sea resorts.

“There are other destinations different than Cairo and Alexandria that are safe away from the hot events,” he says.

But Zaazou said he is bullish about the future, and aims to bring 13 million tourists to Egypt this year.

“I think that in the medium and long term, tourism will see a strong comeback,” he predicted.

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