Tourism to the Middle East, or should we more accurately describe it as the Muddle East, has been under serious siege during 2011. With half of 2011 behind us, inbound tourism to Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and Syria are well down over the record 2011 levels. Israel has experienced a slight downturn. Political instability in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria has had a ripple effect on tourism in neighboring countries, including Jordan, and Israel is expected to continue for some time. The usually popular multi-destination combination tours, which include combinations involving one or more of Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Syria, have suffered a major downturn in 2011 especially as Egypt is usually the core destination for these tours.
Political instability emanating from growing anti-regime opposition in Syria and the Syrian government’s violent attempts to crush the protest movement has had a negative impact on Syria’s tourism industry which was enjoying significant growth in 2010. The political instability in Tunisia and Egypt is far from resolved. The recently announced postponement of elections slated for September in Egypt is likely to prolong the agony experienced by the Egyptian tourism industry during 2011.
I recently presented a paper in the state of Egyptian Tourism at the First International Conference on Safety and Crisis Management held in Nicosia, Cyprus. As part of the research for the paper I interviewed CEOs from a wide range of Australian wholesale tour operators that specialize in Egypt. Although Australia is a relatively small source market for Egypt (72,000 Australian visited in 2010) it’s a lucrative market for Egypt as Australian tend to stay longer and spend more than tourists from most other source markets.
The confusion surrounding the protest movement to oust Mubarak in late January and the first half of February was exacerbated by the fact that it occurred at the height of Egypt’s tourism season. The inertia demonstrated Egyptian Tourism Authority during the crisis left the guiding role for Egypt’s tourism industry relations with its source markets to the private sector. While those I interviewed were fulsome in their praise for the professionalism of their Egyptian ground operators in dealing with a chaotic situation they were scathing in their criticism of the ETA’s rudderless and inept approach to managing a tourism crisis. Although the ETA sprang into action to promote a return of tourism to Egypt immediately after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, in many source markets including Australia they had lost so much reputational capital by their inept crisis management that industry stakeholders found it difficult to trust anything they said. Government Tourism Offices generally take a lead role in managing information to tourism stakeholders during a crisis situation. While it could be argued that the Egyptian Tourism Authority was operating in an environment in which the channels of authority were confused there is no reason why it could not have given advice on the status of accommodation, domestic transport and international departures on its web site.
The Egyptian government and the Egyptian tourism industry is understandably anxious to attract the tourists back to Egypt. Between January-April 2011 the Egyptian tourism industry lost US$2.5 billion in business and 3 million cancellations, catastrophic numbers for an industry which employs 1.75 million people, many of whom have either lost their jobs or whose positions are in peril.
The Egyptian approach (especially to the travel industry) to recover tourism post the January/ February uprising has tended to focus more on what tourists can do for Egypt rather than on why it should be in the best interest of tourist to visit Egypt. The ETA and the Egyptian tourism industry has gone part of the way to address the latter issue by stressing the advantages of visitors being able to experience Egypt’s sites relatively unhindered by crowds and stressing the warm welcome they would no doubt receive in Egypt. It is noteworthy that tourists were never deliberate targets of political violence during or since the uprising. The embrace of the “revolution” by Egypt’s tourism industry has been an unusual approach but it is a double-edged sword when trying to convince tourists to come and travel companies to promote the destination. The Arab Spring unfortunately is not turning into the Elysian Fields that many of its supporters would have hoped and there are many poisonous thorns in the garden.
However, the main point that Australian tour operators made in relation to them actively promoting a return to Egypt to the sort of mass tourism Egypt enjoyed in 2010 was that there needed to be a clear resolution of the uncertain political situation. A democratic election that provides a clear mandate to a civilian government is seen as an essential prerequisite to a full speed recovery of tourism to Egypt. While political uncertainty continues to exist in Egypt, the return of tourists to Egypt is likely to be patchy at best during 2011. I suspect that the response of Australian tourism professionals to the research I conducted would be replicated in many of Egypt’s larger source markets.