Egyptian tourism minister looks to future

After Egypt saw a record low in numbers of tourists in 2013, the country's interim tourism minister appears optimistic for the sector’s comeback.

al-monitor A shopkeeper waiting for customers is reflected in a mirror at a souvenir shop at a popular tourist area in the Khan el-Khalili market, Cairo, Oct. 29, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh.

Topics covered

tourism, terror attacks, political conflict, gulf states, government reform, egypt

Jan 9, 2014

“2013 was the worst year on record for Egypt’s tourism industry, where the number of visitors hit a new low, the security situation deteriorated and the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood brought political instability. A significant fall in tourism revenue came as a result of all this.”

In an exclusive interview with Al-Hayat, Egypt’s Tourism Minister Hisham Zazou, who is considered by many to be one of the most active members of the transitional government along with Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, quoted Queen Elizabeth’s “annus horribilis” when he referred to last year.

While sitting in his office at the headquarters of the Tourism Ministry in Cairo, Zazou frankly admitted that foreign tourism to Egypt is still affected, especially cultural tourism to Luxor, Aswan and other archaeological areas that used to attract millions of tourists who are enthusiasts of Egypt’s pharaonic history. Yet, (while he was answering several phone calls) he appeared animated when talking about the promising tourism plans that he is working to implement at the start of the new year with foreign ministers and senior officials at international tourism companies. Zazou had to interrupt the interview several times to check with the ministry’s employees his full schedule during the Christmas and New Year's holiday season, especially regarding the preparations for the EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton’s visit to Luxor, as well as other Gulf tourist delegations, most notably a tourism and media delegation from Kuwait that made an important visit to Sharm el- Sheikh.

Zazou unveiled a new initiative, along with the many others he is implementing. [The initiative is] meant to get Egypt’s tourism sector on track, namely that in 2014 Arab Gulf states will bring support to tourism in various areas, including the well-known coastal [cities] such as Sharm el-Sheikh, Hurghada and the north coast [of Egypt], as well as cultural archaeological sites in Cairo, Upper Egypt and Luxor. He asserted that Kuwait, which provided Egypt with significant political and economic support following the June 30 Revolution, is greatly interested in promoting the tourism sector in the country.

In a clearly emotional tone, Zazou conveyed a message from the heart to the brethren in the Gulf, by saying, “We have missed you. Egypt warmly opens its arms to you, as our country is safe for Arab and international tourists, particularly since it is close to you in terms of traditions, geography, language and history. [This is] in case you would like to help the future of Egypt, as it seeks to achieve stability and implement a map for the future.”

Zazou went through the details of his numerous plans to promote [Egyptian] tourism in the Gulf states. These include direct advertisements, public relations, field visits and trailers. He confirmed that there is a working group in Saudi Arabia for this purpose and [it] is seeking to sign an agreement with Rotana to organize a series of events to attract Saudi and Gulf tourists to all of the tourist areas in Egypt. He said the complaints of Gulf tourists have been addressed. [The latter] had expressed their unease because they were treated differently from European and international tourists in terms of hotel fees, where they had to pay extra sums. Zazou stressed that prices will be very competitive in tourism destinations such as Sharm el-Sheikh, Hurghada and other Egyptian cities.

Zazou is keen to hold meetings with Arab media outlets on the ground, including the recent visit by the Kuwaiti media delegation to Sharm el-Sheikh. He explained to Al-Hayat that there are special arrangements for Gulf families to spend the mid-year vacation in Egypt and special programs for the weekends at special prices. [He added that] work is underway to overcome any obstacles that the Gulf tourist may encounter and to facilitate the arrival of Arab brethren from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan by car in the coming summer.

Zazou said he is optimistic about the recovery of tourism after the first phase in the map for the future, namely the referendum on the constitution and after the security situation improves. He said enthusiastically, “I bet on that, after the start of the political movement during the presidential election and the parliamentary elections.”

Zazou seeks to build a partnership and encourage Gulf carriers to organize regular direct flights to tourist areas. He talked in a bitter way about the deterioration of the tourism sector in terms of layoffs in the tourism and hospitality industry, reduction of salaries and financial hardship that several hotels have suffered. Yet, he admitted that the tourism earnings, upon which the Egyptian budget depends along with the Suez Canal, have suffered from a dangerous jolt, where (until November) 2013 this earning was $6.6 billion, compared with $10 billion in 2012.

He said 4 million Egyptian citizens directly rely on tourism, each providing for three or four people. This means that 16 million Egyptians are positively or negatively affected by the tourism sector. Zazou seeks to establish a 7 billion Egyptian pound [$1 billion] fund to assist the insolvent tourism companies, and implored big hotels in the Gulf as well as Egyptian banks and insurance companies to contribute in this field through capital funds.

Al-Hayat also spoke to South Sinai Gov. Gen. Khaled Fouda, who also adjured Gulf tourists by saying, “Sharm el-Sheikh is calling you; it is a safe city free of any violent acts since 2005. We need your support in tourism after your country supported us politically and financially. You are our people and our brethren.”

The governor, who was keen to talk about the stable security situation there, affirmed that the Egyptian people will get to a safe harbor with the implementation of the map for the future, and after six months there will be a new government, president and an elected parliament.

Like the minister of tourism, he acknowledged that tourism in Sharm el-Sheikh and Dahab is affected by the lower hotel occupancy in the province. He said that many hotels have large debts, which is why he is trying through his contacts to reschedule the debts, pointing out that more than 30 hotels are now trying hard to stand on their own two feet. It was notable that the hotel occupancy rates in Sharm el-Sheikh ranged between just 30-50% during the Christmas and New Year's holiday season in 2013, while this time of the year is considered a peak season for hotel occupancy in European countries in ordinary years.

Fouda talked about the measures to secure tourist sites over the past period, as well as the churches and places of worship during the holidays, in the province. He said the security presence in the street has been intensified and the state of alert was increased, especially after the recent terrorist act in the city of Mansoura. The armed forces, security agencies and intelligence services have contributed in consistently securing coastal cities in the province, and he pointed out that a closed-circuit TV network will be installed in all areas in the next two weeks.

As for a plan to boost tourism in the southern province, Fouda said the first international [art] biennale was recently organized in Sharm el-Sheikh and attended by 50 international artists who painted in the city’s venues. Moreover, several international conferences, concerts and folk music events will be held there.

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