The Egyptian government plans to expand its religious tourism map by adding the route that Jesus, Mary and Joseph are believed to have traveled after they fled Palestine. The move comes in an effort to boost an industry that has been hit hard since the 2011 revolution. Tourism Minister Yehia Rashed flew to Rome on May 9 to discuss promotional opportunities involving the holy family's journey with Vatican tourism officials.
In a May 11 statement, Rashed said that eight of 25 historical sites to be included in the tour are ready to receive visitors. The sites include the Church of St. Sergius and the Hanging Church in Old Cairo, St. Mary's Coptic Orthodox Convent in Maadi, the three monasteries of Wadi al-Natrun, the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Jabal al-Tair near Minya, Muharraq Monastery at Mount Koskam and the Holy Virgin Mary Coptic Orthodox Monastery at Mount Durunka in Assiut governorate. According to legend, the holy family made stops or had stays at these places or locations during their exile.
Shortly before Rashid’s trip to Rome, Pope Francis had made a landmark visit to Egypt, April 28-29. Rashid said in a statement, “The pope’s visit, the photos [of it] and the content of the visit will contribute significantly to boosting Egypt’s tourism industry, especially in the markets interested in religious tourism.”
The Gospel of Matthew says Mary, Joseph and Jesus fled to Egypt to escape the clutches of King Herod, who feared losing his throne after the Magi proclaimed Jesus the new king of the Jews. To stave off that possibility, Herod sought to kill Jesus. God visited Joseph in a dream, telling him to escort the baby Jesus and his mother to Egypt, where they would find refuge until Herod's death and receive his message to return to Palestine.
Many Egyptians hope that spotlighting Egypt's religious heritage will attract a large number of visitors from around the world. In 2005, the Tourism Ministry developed a plan to feature the holy family's connection and journey to Egypt to boost religious tourism. The plan never got off the ground, however, largely due to the political turbulence caused by the revolution and continuing through the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi. A ministerial committee was established last year to revive the plan, but little has been accomplished on the ground.
“Rashed’s visit to Rome is a good step toward promoting the journey abroad, especially after Pope Francis’ visit to the country and his statements on the sanctity of the journey,” Adel Saleh Nagi, who owns a tourism company, told Al-Monitor. The pope invoked the journey, remarking, “I am truly happy to be coming as a friend, as a messenger of peace, and a pilgrim to the country that, over 2,000 years ago, gave refuge and hospitality to the holy family as they fled the threats of King Herod. I am honored to visit the land visited by the holy family!” In terms of rolling out a tourism campaign around the holy family, Nagi noted that it would have been better had it coincided with Francis’ visit, rather than taking place after it.
In a speech at a gathering organized by Al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam’s highest institution of learning, Francis said, “For us, Egypt has been a sign of hope, refuge and help. When that part of the world suffered famine, Jacob and his sons went there. Then when Jesus was persecuted, he went there. … Egypt, for us, is that sign of hope both in history and for today, this brotherhood.”
Nagi said that it is important that the Egyptian government and the Coptic Church sign protocols of cooperation with the Vatican, the spiritual guide for more than 1.2 billion Christians worldwide, and the Catholic Church in Europe to promote Jesus' flight into Egypt. He also noted that the government has to increase spending on security measures as well as on infrastructure to be able to accommodate a large number of Christian tourists.
“Hotels near religious sites have to be given a facelift and provided with trained staff,” Nagi said. “Roads should be paved, garbage should be removed and slums have to be destroyed, with inhabitants relocated, so tourists will go back to their countries with a positive image of Egypt.”
Tourism has long been a major source of income for Egypt. Before the January 25 Revolution, more than one in 10 workers were employed in the tourism industry, which generated approximately $12.5 billion in revenue. Egypt welcomed nearly 15 million tourists annually. By 2013, however, that number had fallen by a third, to under 10 million.
The situation further deteriorated after the downing of a Russian plane filled with tourists in Sinai in October 2015. According to the Tourism Ministry, Egypt has incurred monthly losses of 3.2 billion pounds ($178 million) directly and indirectly since the incident, which took the lives of 224 people. The Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.
According to local media, Rashed anticipates a massive recovery in the tourism sector this year, with foreign airlines from major markets, including Russia, the United Kingdom and Germany, expected to resume flights to Egyptian tourist destinations. Revenue from these three markets, the minister said, represented more than 40% of total tourism flows to Egypt in the past two years.