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Egypt's Political Turmoil Drives Foreign Tourists Away

Sep 21, 2011
Originally published on September 22, 2011 8:20 pm

The big losers of the Arab Spring in Egypt aren't just Hosni Mubarak and his allies.

Before the February revolution, one of every seven Egyptians made a living in the tourism industry. But nearly seven months after the popular uprising, foreign tourists are still largely staying away.

Their absence has delivered a multibillion-dollar financial blow that is reverberating from luxury tour operators down to vendors in Cairo's bazaars.

At the Khan el-Khalili market, which is popular with foreign visitors, Hassan Abdel Ain chisels Islamic artwork onto a copper plate. He has spent more than a half-century perfecting his craft, and it used to bring him 20 sales a day.

Now, the weathered-looking artisan says he's lucky if he can sell even one plate.

Nearby, shopkeepers play dominoes in the narrow alleys while waiting for tourists who rarely come anymore.

One store manager, Hisham Ahmed, says that a year ago this market was packed with foreigners during the cooler evening hours. On this night, only a few Egyptians walk past without glancing at his wares.

Ahmed says he and others in the tourist trade are suffering because of a revolution that everyone here hoped would improve Egyptian life.

Egypt's top tourism officials agree. They say media reports of demonstrations that ousted President Mubarak coupled with foreign travel warnings about the unrest have frightened away millions of tourists.

Tourism in Egypt has dropped 35 percent overall in the first half of this year compared with the same period in 2010, according to Hisham Zaazou, the senior assistant tourism minister.

That's been a $3 billion loss for the Egyptian economy. While Egypt's military rulers have more or less restored calm, the number of travelers has been slow to rebound.

"I'm worried, and I think everybody working in this industry is worried," Zaazou says. "It's a matter of how we can restore and regain consumer confidence again."

Rebound Much Slower Than Expected

Karim Aly agrees. As the vice president of Emeco Travel, a large operator based in Cairo, he says he has never seen a rebound this slow. It's even worse than in the 1990s, when a series of terrorist attacks drove away tourists.

His company has only 20 to 25 percent of the business it expected this year. "This is a failure, a huge failure, because we are a company of 500 employees. So how can I support 500 employees with 20 percent of the revenue?"

He says dozens of his employees are on extended unpaid leaves.

Cairo-based tour guides such as Maha Mahmoud el-Halwagy are also having a rough time. She says her workload has been cut by two-thirds because foreigners are too afraid to come despite steep discounts being offered on tour packages.

Halwagy believes such fear is misplaced. She says Egyptians are generally very protective of tourists. She notes that none of the violence or protests has been directed at visitors.

"But of course the tourists don't know that," she says.

Egypt's reputation took another blow when a group of protesters recently attacked the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, leading the ambassador and the staff to return home to Israel.

Halwagy says that attack threatens an uptick in tourism that was expected here next month. She and others here now expect the tourism lull to continue well into next year.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, Host:

Before Egypt's revolution, one of every seven Egyptians made a living in the tourism industry. But nearly eight months after the popular uprising, foreign tourists remain scarce. That's delivered a multi-billion dollar financial blow, reverberating from luxury tour operators down to vendors in Cairo's bazaars. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Hassan Abdel Ain chisels Islamic artwork onto a copper plate here at Khan el-Khalili. It's a craft he's perfected over half a century in this market popular with foreign visitors, and it used to net him 20 sales a day.

HASSAN ABDEL AIN: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: These days, the weathered-looking artisan says he's lucky he can sell even one plate. Nearby, shopkeepers play dominoes in the narrow alleys while waiting for tourists who rarely come here anymore. One store manager is Hisham Ahmed.

HISHAM AHMED: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: He says a year ago this market was packed with foreigners during the cooler evening hours. On this night, only a few Egyptians walk past without glancing at his wares.

AHMED: (Foreign language spoken)

SARHADDI NELSON: Ahmed says he and others in the tourist trade are suffering because of a revolution that everyone here hoped would improve Egyptian life. Egypt's top tourism officials agree. They say media reports of demonstrations that ousted Mubarak coupled with foreign travel warnings about the unrest have frightened away millions of tourists. Senior Assistant Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou says tourism in Egypt dropped by 35 percent overall in the first half of the year, compared to the same period in 2010. That's meant a $3 billion loss to the Egyptian economy. Zaazou says while Egypt's military rulers have more or less restored calm, the number of travelers has been slow to rebound.

HISHAM ZAAZOU: I am worried and I think everybody working in this industry is worried, be this person an official or a private sector businessman, he is worried. Yes, of course. It's the matter of how can we restore and regain the consumer confidence again.

SARHADDI NELSON: An executive with a major Egyptian tour company agrees. Karim Aly, who is a vice president at the Cairo-based Emeco Travel, says he's never seen a rebound this slow, not even following terrorist attacks against tourists in Egypt.

KARIM ALY: I don't say we don't have business but having only 20 to 25 percent of the business promised for this year, this is a failure, a huge failure, because we are a company of 500 employees. So how can I support 500 employees with 20 percent of the revenue?

SARHADDI NELSON: He says dozens of his employees are on extended, unpaid leaves. Cairo-based tour guides like Maha Mahmoud el Halwagy are also having a rough time of it. She says her workload has been cut by two-thirds because foreigners are too afraid to come, despite steep discounts being offered on tour packages to lure them back. Halwagy believes such fear is misplaced. She says Egyptians are generally very protective of tourists. She adds none of the violence or protests have been directed at visitors.

MAHA MAHMOUD EL HALWAGY: But of course the tourists don't know that, especially that sometimes happens a few things like what happened just a few days ago or something. So they think that the whole country in a big mess.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

SARHADDI NELSON: The incident the tour guide is referring to, captured here in a YouTube video, is a mob attack on the Israeli embassy here two weeks ago that sent the ambassador and his staff fleeing. Halwagy says the attack threatens a resurgence of tourism that was expected here next month.

MAHMOUD EL HALWAGY: And then after what happened in the embassy, like now half of the people canceled reservations.

SARHADDI NELSON: She and others here expect the tourism lull to continue well into next year, until Egyptians elect a new parliament and president. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.