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Egypt struggles to revive ailing tourism badly hit by unrest

Mon, 16th Sep 2013 05:50

CAIRO (Alliance News) - "It's all about sun, sand and sea," a waiter said of Sharm el-Sheikh. But Egypt's once-popular Red Sea resort city, like the rest of the ailing tourism sector, has been hard hit by the ongoing unrest.

Officials and workers in the city have been trying to promote it as a haven from the violence and political stalemate that has gripped the country since president Mohammed Morsi was toppled by the army on July 3.

Sharm el-Sheikh Governor Khaled Fouda said hotel occupancy rates have been at 20 per cent in recent weeks, despite initiatives by the government to encourage domestic tourism by offering low-price packages for Egyptians.

According to official data, the number of tourists visiting Egypt dropped by 25 per cent in July, compared with the same month last year.

The tourism industry, once a pillar of Egypt's economy, has been reeling for three years.

It was first hit by the 2011 uprising against president Hosny Mubarak, which pushed revenues down by 30 per cent, compared to that in 2010.

With sporadic violence and a lack of security continuing across the country, the sector had not yet recovered when Morsi's ouster unleashed a fresh wave of political turmoil.

Officials say the latest period of disquiet has been the worst because it has affected Red Sea cities such as Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada more deeply than before.

Tourism Minister Hesham Zazou believes that travel warnings by European countries are the main problem.

In August, Germany extended its travel alert to popular Red Sea resorts for the first time, while several Nordic travel agencies suspended trips to Egypt for the rest of the year.

Zazou has launched a campaign to pressure European governments to lift the warning "even gradually, on cities away from any hotspot, like the Red Sea resort cities as well as Luxor and Aswan" - cities in southern Egypt known for their Pharaonic monuments.

"There are almost no tourists at this stage in these cities," Zazou said.

There have been days recently, the minister said, when only one person visited the Abu Simbel temple, near Aswan, one of Egypt's top tourist attractions.

There has been no violence in Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada, and Luxor has witnessed small protests by Morsi's supporters.

Hotel occupancy in Luxor and Aswan stood between 3 to 5 per cent in August.

Zazou recently appealed to a small group of Italian tourists and tour operators in Sharm el-Sheikh to demand their government lift the travel restrictions imposed in August.

While Zazou began a tour in Europe, starting with Britain, to meet government officials and tour operators, French security expert Bernard Jacquemart arrived in Egypt to check on the security situation in tourist areas including Taba, Marsa Alam and Cairo.

"Shop owners cannot pay our salaries anymore, because there are no revenues. Now is the worst time for the business since January 2011," said Mohsen, a salesman at a shop in Cairo's Khan al-Khalili bazaar.

European visitors account for 70 per cent of Egypt's tourists, while travellers from the Gulf countries account for 20 per cent, according to Zazou.

The Foreign Ministry has also been trying to encourage people to visit Egypt and convince governments to lift travel restrictions.

In Hurghada, local tour operators organized a march and invited tourists in the city to join, to voice a message that the city is safe.

But a recent attack in Cairo targeting the convoy of Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim raised fears of Egypt reverting to the 1990s, when there were assaults targeting government officials and foreign tourists that were blamed on radical Islamists fighting the government.

Zazou dismissed suggestions that the incident, along with the almost daily attacks in Northern Sinai province, would affect Egypt's efforts to restore security and revive its economy.

"We cannot say the incidents of the 1990s will be repeated again. The government is determined to take full charge to ensure the security of Egyptians and our guests," Zazou told dpa.

"I believe that during the coming weeks and months you will see the government handle this issue very severely, so as not to allow the recurrence of these acts of terrorism," he continued.

The few tourists in Sharm el-Sheikh seemed unconcerned about the political developments, including Italian pianist Luca who said he did not follow the news.

"All I heard about Egypt before coming was that it is a beautiful place and the sea is amazing," he said.

Copyright dpa

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