Egypt is trying jumpstart its economically vital tourism industry by attracting western vacationers again. But the security situation and talk of alcohol and bikini bans are complicating the effort.
"Only when it's calm outside is there work fur us," says Rami Badr as he looks through the glass façade of his travel agency onto Tahrir Square. Colorful posters with inexpensive travel deals hang all over his office, but nobody is taking him up on those offers. The long-desired flood of tourists still has not arrived.
There could hardly be a better location for this travel agency than Tahrir Square, which lies in the middle of the heart of Cairo. The square, however, was the center of the protests that toppled the former strongman Hosni Mubarak from power over a year ago. To this day, protesters are camping out in the square, demanding the resignation of the governing military council - clashes with the police are common. For the 25-year-old Rami Badr, as well as the other managers of travel agencies in the center of Cairo, every new disturbance is an economic disaster.
Unemployed travel agents
For the past year, travel agents have suffered massive losses. Badr and others in the industry supported the revolution from the very beginning. One year ago, still in a euphoric mood, they hoped that the ouster of Mubarak would usher in a new era for tourism in Egypt. Moataz Sayed, with the tour guide trade union, also counted on a positive effect from the revolution.
"Foreign tourists are always interested in the broader situation in their vacation destination," Sayed said. "That's why we hoped after the revolution that Egypt would become more attractive to western tourists if democracy took root and human rights were respected."
Yet the events of the past months and the poor security situation have scared many visitors. Western tourists are travelling to Egypt clearly less frequently. Approximately 70 percent of the tour guides in his trade union have become unemployed as a consequence of the revolution, according to Sayed.
"Many of my colleagues don't know how they can feed their family anymore," he said.
That's a major problem for the Egyptian economy, says Sayed. It's estimated that one out of seven Egyptians make their living either directly or indirectly from the tourist industry, whether they work as tour guides, restaurant operators, carriage drivers, travel agents or sell souvenirs. The tourism industry and its dependent branches account for around 10 percent Egypt's economy. In addition, tourists bring a lot of foreign currency into the country.
Sayed believes all Egyptians have a duty - all citizens are responsible for the image of their country abroad. He adds that the security situation in Egypt is not as bad as it is portrayed in the media and perceived abroad. With the exception of the kidnapping of two South Korean tourists in the Sinai Peninsula in February 2012, there have been no targeted attacks against tourists in Egypt, according to Sayed.
"For a country that is in the middle of upheaval, that's reassuring overall," he said.
The representatives of the Egyptian tourism industry try to communicate this message - that there's no reason to panic - to potential customers in Germany. The state tourism office organized informatory trips for German travel agents in the run up to the ITB Berlin, a travel trade show, in a bid to encourage them to make Egypt one of their destinations again.
That's no easy task, according to Mohamed Gamal, the general director of the Tourism Department in Egypt's General Consulate. Gamal says that they are trying to again attract more German tourists to the spas on the Red Sea and the cultural locations like Luxor. A television channel has been created for this purpose, showing Egypt "from its most beautiful side" to German television viewers.
There are no official travel warnings for the target destinations, although other regions and certain places in Cairo are considered unsafe. The German Foreign Ministry describes the travel situation in Egypt for foreign tourists as follows:
"Trips to Egypt should, until further notice, be restricted to the Cairo metropolitan area (with the exception of Cairo city center and the area around Tahrir Square and the television building Maspero), the vacation spots on the Red Sea, the tourist centers in upper Egypt (particularly Luxor, Aswan, Nile cruise trips) and the guided tours in the White and Black Deserts. The Foreign Ministry advises against taking trips to the remaining parts of Egypt due to an unclear and unstable security situation."
Gamal hopes that, despite the travel warning, more Germans will come to his country.
"Germany represents an important market for us," he said. Even in the critical year of the revolution, more than 900,000 Germans visited Egypt. Only Russians and the English were better represented.
"Earlier, however, at least 1.3 million German visitors came to us annually," Gamal said. "Our goal is to reach this mark again."
Fear of Islamic law
The Red Sea and its beaches is a magnet for tourists
Western vacationers, however, are not just scared off by TV images of violent clashes in Cairo. There are also the comments by individual Islamic politicians who have spoken out in support of a ban on alcohol. In addition, some would like to forbid the wearing of bikinis in public at Egyptian spas.
Although a large majority of Islamists of different colors currently sits in parliament, Gamal believes that it's "nearly impossible" for them to pass bans that would effect western tourists. Sayed, from the Egyptian tour guide trade union, is optimistic on this point. The Muslim Brotherhood as well as the more radical Salafists have shown themselves to be "very cooperative" during conversations on this issue. Many Islamists had little conception how important the tourism industry is for the Egyptian economy, Gamal said.
His lobby work aims to create a stronger awareness of this reality. Above all, the goal is to profile Egypt more strongly as a travel destination for cultural experiences. In other words, the cultural tourists are wanted instead of the party tourists. However, one can hardly regulate what foreign guests should eat or drink.
Author: Khalid El Kaoutit, Amira Rahman / slk
Editor: Neil King