Egypt, Food, and Tourism

Over the next few weeks we should expect to hear a great deal about the situation in Egypt. Commentators will speak about the ideals of democracy and politicians will each provide their own spin. Yet there are a number of issues that seem to have fall off the commentators’ maps and may have a great deal of impact on the tourism industry.

The first thing to note is how different the coverage is of this “revolt” and of that which occurred in Iran not long ago. The Iranian unrest was clearly about the population’s desire for democracy, yet neither American nor European politicians had much to say and the media’s coverage was minimal in comparison to the Egyptian situation.

Furthermore, we know very little about what is causing the Egyptian disorders and what their long-term consequences may be. While these disorders may be a sincere desire for some form of democracy it is still too early to tell if this is the true reason behind these vast manifestations. Could there be other reasons that the media are missing and how might these other reasons impact tourism?

Certainly the lack of political stability in Egypt has short –term consequences for tourism. Cruise ships will avoid Egyptian ports, the Red Sea resorts will suffer, and travel to the entire Middle East may decline at least until the situation returns to a sense of calm. It is still to early to tell when Egyptian tourism will return to “normal” and which locations may “benefit” from a public that seeks alternative and safer locations.

One possible hypothesis is that these manifestations have more to do with the current rise in food prices and less to do with a sincere desire for western democracy. If this is the case then these manifestations may have a major impact on tourism. In recent years food prices have risen sharply. Part of this reason is due to the West’s switching to corn-based ethanol. The removal of millions of food producing acres and their transformation into “ethanol” acreage may be a major cause in the rise of food prices not only at local supermarkets but also in restaurants and other places where disposable income is spent. If such an hypothesis is correct then Egypt may be more a repetition of the root causes behind the French Revolution (the high cost of bread) and less about ideology.

If the high cost of fuel and food is the real basis behind the Egyptian troubles, then tourism officials need to ask themselves if this new economic situation may have long-term consequences for the tourism industry. Will western consumers continue to frequent restaurants or will the restaurant industry already suffering from a weak economy continue to constrict? If fuel prices continue to rise how will these price rises impact the transportation component of the tourism industry? What is clear is that tourism officials must not fall into the trap of seeking simple answers to highly complex issues.

Although tourism officials are not responsible for containing political or economic problems they do need to be aware of how local problems may impact their own community. Officials need to consider what type of risk management they use? How will they handle a crisis and do they have a plan to handle a crisis prior to the crisis’s occurrence?

Tourism officials cannot stop a crisis from happening, but it is easier to modify a plan in the midst of a crisis then it is to create a plan during a crisis.

The Egyptian experience then ought to remind tourism officials that theirs is a highly volatile industry that often must react to the winds of change. Here are a few things that tourism officials may wish to consider:
1. Make sure that you review your crisis management plans on a regular basis.
2. Establish a clear chain of command should a crisis occur.
3. Work with local police departments.
4. Have an on-going evacuation plan set.
5. Do not get into a political guessing-game, the causes of a problem from a tourism perspective may be less important during a crisis then the way that tourism officials handle the crisis.
6. Do not lose credibility. Have clear and accurate information
7. Develop close ties with people in the media who can get the tourism story out to the public.
8. Crises are as much about perception as fact. Make sure that you have a handle on the perception part of a crisis.
9. Never forget that tourism is about people and good customer service. In case of a crisis remember that your guests’ welfare and safety must come first.
10. Plan for recovery on day one of a crisis. During the height of a crisis remember that crises do come to an end and that the time to begin to plan for recovery is when the situation seems to be at its worst.

Dr. Peter E. Tarlow, President of Tourism & More