Controversy over Italian student's murder threatens Egypt's tourism sector

Ambiguity concerning the investigations into the murder of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni in Egypt will further harm the country's already declining tourism sector.

al-monitor An Egyptian activist holds a poster calling for justice to be done in the case of the recently murdered Italian student Giulio Regeni during a demonstration protesting the government's decision to transfer two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, in front of the Press Syndicate in Cairo, April 15, 2016.  Photo by REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany.

Topics covered

tourism, murder, law, january 25 revolution, italy, egypt protests, egypt tourism, boycott

Apr 17, 2016

On April 2, the Italian Association for Responsible Tourism (AITR) issued a statement noting that all its travel packages to Egypt would be suspended “until the tragic events of [Giulio] Regeni’s murder are revealed.” Regeni, an Italian graduate student conducting research in Egypt, went missing on the fifth anniversary of the January 25 Revolution. His body was found Feb. 3 on the outskirts of Cairo with clear signs of torture.

The decision of AITR, a nongovernmental association, comes amid ambiguity concerning investigations into the murder and a lack of confidence on the part of the Italian authorities as well as Regeni’s family about the integrity of the Egyptian investigation. Regeni’s mother has criticized the Egyptian authorities for a lack of transparency concerning the investigation and said she was prepared to publish a photo of his battered body if authorities do not share their findings. On April 8, Italy recalled its ambassador to Egypt due to a lack of progress in the murder investigation.

The decision raised the concerns of Magdi al-Banoudi, an Egyptian consultant on international tourism, who said Egypt has already lost 50% of the UK market and the entire Russian market. He said the majority of the Egyptian tourism enterprises are operating at about 25% of their normal capacity due to the stagnation in tourist traffic.

Banoudi told Al-Monitor, “A large number of tourist offices and institutions in Egypt depend on Italian tourists as a main source of income that cannot be overlooked. Egypt managed to attract about 1 million Italian tourists in 2010. However, this number has been steadily declining over the past five years, despite marketing efforts by Egyptians to restore the normal tourist activity in the country.”

He added, “Egypt risks losing the entire European market.” Given the stalemate in Regeni’s case, Banoudi expects “tourist sanctions and flight restrictions” to be imposed on Egypt.

According to the annual tourism book issued by Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics in 2015, Italy ranked sixth in the world and third in Europe in terms of tourist arrivals to Egypt. Italian tourists to Egypt numbered 332,932 in 2015, contributing about $23.1 million to the Egyptian tourism sector.

Banoudi stressed that the AITR decision amounts to a mere recommendation for travel companies, describing it as part of the pressure by Italians on the Egyptian administration in light of the lack of clarity in the Regeni murder case.

“The tourism sector in Egypt is going through a crisis, a bottleneck or more like a dark tunnel,” Banoudi said, stressing that Egyptians working in the tourism sector are suffering because of the successive crises. He called on the political leadership to find a swift solution to the crisis with Italy and to take advantage of Egypt and Russia's relationship to revive the Russian market in Egypt.

The Egyptian tourism sector has been hurting due to the unstable situation in the country. In November, a Russian plane crashed after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh airport. This was blamed on terrorism, prompting Russia to ban flights to Egypt; the flights have yet to resume.

While Britain banned flights to Sharm el-Sheikh following the incident, it lifted the ban Dec. 1. All this has affected the number of tourist arrivals to Egypt; the total fell about 600,000 tourists in 2015, a 5.6% decrease compared with 2014.

Bassem Halaka, chairman of the constituent board of the professional workers union in the tourism sector, said that implementing the decision to suspend tourist flights to Egypt would depend on the Italian government and tourists themselves, not tourist companies or associations. He stressed that it is not in the best interests of Italian tourist companies to not meet the requests of Italians wanting to visit Egypt.

However, Halaka expected the AITR decision to adversely affect the Italian tourists flow to Egypt. He added, however, that this does not mean all flights will be suspended, as not all Italian tour operators are members of the association and thus its decision is not binding for some.

“We are trying to open channels of communication between Egyptian and Italian companies to remedy the situation and to try to avoid political issues impacting the tourism sector, which has been struggling for years and cannot endure more blows,” he said.

Halaka told Al-Monitor, “Some Italian tourism companies are keen to overcome to this crisis, as Egypt serves an important tourist attraction for Italy, not to mention the high prices of other tourist destinations in the region such as Tunisia, Turkey, Jordan and Israel.”

Sami Mahmoud, head of the Egyptian Tourism Promotion Authority, played down the impact of the AITR decision on the Italian tourist flow to Egypt. “This association has no value in the Italian market,” he told Al-Monitor.

He said that the Egyptian Tourism Promotion Authority continues to work with other Italian companies such as the Italian Association of Tour Operators and the Italian Federation of Travel & Tourism Associations.

“Italian tourists love to visit Egypt,” Mahmoud said. He believes that Egypt is an excellent tourist destination for Italians in terms of geographical proximity, low cost and weather, stressing that there Italian tourists are still coming to the coastal cities of Sharm el-Sheikh and Marsa Alam despite the AITR decision.

At the same time, Mahmoud expressed fear that the Egyptian and Italian sides would fail to reach an agreement about the circumstances of Regeni’s death; he expected that Egyptian tourism would be negatively affected and could lose the Italian market should the ambiguity surrounding the issue increase.

“Regeni’s case has been blown out of proportion. The Egyptian authorities should have dealt with it wisely from the very beginning; now they have to contain it, especially since Italy is one of the few countries that have yet to impose any travel restrictions on Egypt, despite the unstable situation in the country,” he said.

Farag Abdel Fattah, professor of economics at Cairo University, has warned against the impact of the Italian association’s decision on the Egyptian economy and Egypt’s income in foreign currencies, especially in light of the crises that have been plaguing the tourism sector for five years now. He also stressed that should Egypt lose the Italian tourism market, this would not only mean the loss of the $230 million Egypt gained last year as a result of Italian tourist arrivals, but would also impact the tourism market from Europe in general.

Abdel Fattah told Al-Monitor that the solution to this crisis lies in the hands of the political leadership, which ought to take further actions to avoid such a loss and to rebuild economic relations with Italy.

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