The weekend’s attack on protesters in Abbassiya is the latest setback for the country’s tourism sector. But those working in the travel offices around Tahrir wonder how much further business can fall
Khaled Gamal lights his fourth cigarette, shouts a ballpark figure for a bus-tour at a colleague then flicks a wrist towards the sit-in taking place in the square below his travel agency.
“They are a few hundred, Egypt is 90 million,” says the tourism manager, dismissively. “Tahrir doesn’t represent all of us.”
Like many who depend on Egypt’s once lucrative tourist industry for their income, Gamal’s patience with the recent string of pro-reform protests has worn thin. Business is seeing an unprecedented slump, tumbling to 25 per cent of last year’s level even with allowances made for the traditionally sluggish summer season.
Gamal places the blame squarely on his tent-dwelling neighbours, echoing the state media’s accusations that demonstators are the tools for a ‘foreign agenda’.
“They get money to be camped out there ruining the country,” he snorts.
The weekend’s clashes in Abbasiya, which saw peaceful protesters attacked during a march on the military council’s headquarters, were the latest blow for the embattled tourism sector which brought Egypt an estimated US$13 billion in 2010.
As the glass and rubble is swept from the streets around eastern Cairo’s An-Nour mosque, Egyptian officials are trying to calculate the less ephemeral damage.
Samih Mahmoud of the Tourism Development Authority (TDA) says it will take time to work out Saturday’s impact.
“Such events completely undermine the ministry’s effort to boost tourism,” he tells Ahram Online. “There isn’t much the ministry can do to salvage things – these incidents are beyond our control.”
Peaceful protests have a marginal effect on the sector, but violent events that make the television news can set the tourism revival back months, claims Mahmoud.
Owners and employees at the tourism outlets that ring the edges of Tahrir and arrange flights, tours and accommodation for a shrinking pool of clients beg to differ.
After nearly six months of uncertainty, they say, tourism has little further to fall. Tiring of a renewed sit-in that is stretching into its third week, managers long for the political stability they think the winter’s elections will bring.
“What takes place in Tahrir is bigger than Abbasiya,” says Albert Ghali, secretary to the manager of the Egyptian Museum, standing on the building’s steps as two-dozen Indian visitors clad in saris mill through the gardens.
Ghali is cheerier than most; he claims visitor numbers to Cairo’s premiere antiquity collection are a healthy 1,800 to 1,900 per day. Medium-size travel agencies like Gamal’s, however, talk of near-catastrophic decline with bookings down between 70 and 80 per cent on last summer.
While none of the dozen agents near Tahrir have closed, many have cut back on staff and slashed salaries. Commissions — a vital source of extra income for employees – have plummeted.
According to many firms, it is business from Gulf tourists on regular summer vacations which is helping them keep heads above water. Summer’s 40-degree heat rules out all but the hardiest Westerners, typically leaving it to other Arab nationals to fill the gap.
But Gulf visitors have fallen too, their numbers 42 per cent down year-on-year in June. Tourists from the United Arab Emirates declined 50 per cent, those from Saudi Arabia 40 per cent, and Kuwaitis 39 per cent, according to figures the TDA provided to Ahram Online last week.
The local market is being courted as a temporary alternative. An employee at the New Baron agency says practically all their recent tour bookings had been by Egyptians, the fruit of a recent drive to target middle class domestic tourists by offering cut-rates.
Such measures are only partially successful, say others.
“There’s a big difference between places popular with Arabs and Egyptians and those favoured by other tourists,” says Gamal. “Some hotels in Sharm, Hurghada and the north coast might be nearly 90 per cent full but places like Luxor which rely on western visitors are down to just a few per cent.”
He mentions several big-name Cairo hotels that have sealed off entire unused floors to save housekeeping costs.
Their economic interests make a significant number of tourism bosses, if not opponents of the revolution, then at least advocates of stability. But there are plenty – managers and employees — with more nuanced views.
“Tourism faced many problems with organization before the revolution,” says Hassan, who puts gother visits to Aswan and Luxur for Kunuz Tours, citing long-held complaints involving transportation, prices of hotels and security.
Hassan thinks the revolution might encourage a more critical look at what he calls the monopolistic practices of key industry figures like the former tourism minister Zoheir Garana. He talks of a need for new “openness” and a “fresh mindset” but says change after 30 years of institutionalised corruption is unlikely to be overnight.
Asmaa Abdel Hamid, who organises tours at nearby Safir Travel, is also sympathetic to the protests.
“Weekly protests are fine but sit-ins can cause problems,” she says. “The media exaggerates what happens so clients don’t want to come here.”
Apart from a few instances when her boss asked employees to stay home, she says the disruption for working life has been minimal and the protesters’ self-policed security cordons trouble-free.
But all seem to agree that dramatic changes are needed for tourism to return to its pre-January heights.
“Tourism was affected more by the president’s fall than the revolution itself,” says Hassan, suggesting the idea of a power vacuum spooks potential visitors more than actual protests.
Gamal, suspiciously eyeing the small midday crowd on Tahrir, is more blunt.
“A president – that’s what we need. While all this goes on, nothing can change.”