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Bombs threaten Egypt tourism industry anew

AFP  Feb 23, 2009

CAIRO — A deadly bomb attack near a Cairo bazaar threatens to cast a new shadow over Egypt's vital tourism industry, already badly hit by the global economic crisis, analysts said on Tuesday.

Vast numbers of visitors go souvenir hunting in the famed Khan al-Khalili district where the bomb exploded on Sunday, killing a French teenage girl in the first such attack in Egypt in three years.

Analysts said the attack did not bear the hallmarks of an organised militant group but was more likely the work of isolated Islamists.

"The people who did this, perhaps a group of Islamists working on their own, were not going for French people but their target was clearly foreign tourists," Dhia Rashwan, an expert on radical Islam, told AFP.

Hussein Square, the site of the attack, is normally thronged with groups of tourists on their way into the souks, but on Monday there was scarcely a foreign visitor to be seen.

Tourism Minister Zoheir Garranah "strongly" condemned the blast and said he hopes there will not be a negative impact for Egypt at a time when the global credit crunch is already having repercussions and making competition fiercer.

"We have not had cancellations but it is terrible that an act like this, even an isolated one, can destroy years of work at a time when there is already a crisis," said Amal, manageress of Fadimar Tours travel agency.

Tourist arrivals in the Nile Valley and the Red Sea are down 30 to 50 percent so far this year after visitor numbers soared by more than 15 percent in 2008 to a record 12.8 million.

French holiday companies plan to modify their Egyptian tour schedules but do not expect trips to be cancelled, according to Rene-Marc Shikli, president of the association of French tour operators.

In 2005 a suicide bomber chose the same bazaar of narrow passageways lined with souvenir stalls for an attack which killed two French people and an American.

"That was a small Islamist cell and Sunday's attack seems similar in the choice of place and the very basic operating method," said Rashwan, who works for the Al-Ahram strategic studies centre.

The major Red Sea beach resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh, Taba and Dahab were all the scene of bloody attacks organised by an Islamist group which killed a total of 130 people between 2004 and 2006.

Each incident highlighted weaknesses in the apparently tight security cordon around the most popular tourist destinations of Cairo, the Nile Valley and the Red Sea coast.

"There can always be a failure because 100 percent security exists nowhere but work on security should be constant," said Fathi Nour, president of the hoteliers' federation.

But he added: "Tourists are no longer intimidated and no longer want to be. The proof is that the impact of attacks is lessening: (numbers were) lower for three years after the 1997 attack in Luxor but only for a month after the one in Dahab in 2006."

Tourism is Egypt is vital to the economy, having brought in 11 billion dollars in the 2008 financial year, or 11.1 percent of gross domestic product. Around 12.6 percent of the national workforce are employed in the sector.

The number of holidaymakers visiting the country has tripled since 2000 and the sector has struggled to cope with an explosion in demand, especially from Russians, who have been arriving in greater numbers than western Europeans.

Last year 1.8 million Russians came to sunbathe by the Red Sea, outnumbering the 1.2 million Germans and British, the one million Italians and 600,000 French.

Bombs threaten Egypt tourism industry anew
Egyptian women walk past stalls in the usually popular Khan al-Khalili bazaar in Cairo / Image FPA

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