Egypt calls tourists back after numbers dwindle over terror scares

Published by ABC
On 10 August 2016 saa 03:02
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At the great pyramid of Giza just outside the teeming Egyptian capital, Hamed, a souvenir-seller sits alone.

His stall usually throngs with tourists paying homage to the oldest of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

But today, like every day for the last year, it’s slim pickings. The tourism industry in Egypt has all but died.

"I’ve seen tourists come and tourists go, in the bad and good times," he said, waiting hopefully.

Now the Government is going all out to win tourists back.

In an exclusive interview with ABC News, Tourism Minister Yehia Rashed declared his country secure, saying tourists were always welcome.

"Egypt is where history started — it has so many things to share," he said.

"Egypt has always been safe."

Egypt’s tourism minister Yehia Rashed
PHOTO: Egypt’s tourism minister Yehia Rashed insists the country is safe for holidaying. (ABC News: Asmaa Waguih)
Mr Rasheed said his country was a victim of double standards, suffering from unfavourable travel warnings and the cancellation of direct flights.

"Countries should not exercise bans on travel that are unnecessary. You should basically consider that we — and the whole world — are facing a global threat," he said.

"That threat has no borders."

But it’s a hard sell.

The world has not forgotten the deadly attack on a safari tour in Egypt’s western desert last September. A dozen people, including eight Mexicans and four Egyptians, were killedS.

Survivors claim Egyptian security forces had bombed their convoy five times over three hours from a helicopter, mistaking the entourage for militants.

The company that organised the trip had received clearance from Egypt’s tourism police to go to the area. But this was not enough.

"In my work I know that if someone goes into the desert they need permission from military intelligence — and not just from the tourism police which is just for the roads," said ElHamy ElZayat, the head of the Egyptian Tourism Federation at the time of the incident.

Barely a month later, a passenger flight was blown to bits over the Sinai Peninsula. Early on the morning of October 31 last year the airbus crashed after taking off from the resort town of Sharm El-Sheikh destined for St Petersburg.

All 224 passengers and crew were killed. Within hours Egypt’s Islamic State affiliate claimed responsibility.

But it was months before President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi finally acknowledged that it was a terrorist attack.

Most of the victims were Russians returning from holiday.

In the immediate aftermath, Russia, the UK and other European countries stopped direct flights to Sharm El-Sheikh. Despite a specialist UK team reviewing and upgrading safety procedures, they have not resumed.

At its peak in 2010, Egypt’s tourism sector employed more than 10 per cent of the country’s workforce and raked in $US12.5 billion, a tenth of the country’s GDP.

However, political instability since the ousting of dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011 has continued to severely erode the country’s reputation.

Tourist arrivals fell 60 per cent over the last year.

Thousands involved in the sector have lost their jobs. Revenue has plummeted, savaging an already faltering economy. The Egyptian pound lost 15 per cent against the US dollar in March this year alone.

Tourist towns are particularly feeling the pinch. About an hour north of Sharm El-Sheikh is Dahab, once a Bedouin fishing village and now an exquisite diving destination on the edge of the Sinai.

It is renowned for some of the best reefs in the world, a laidback atmosphere and budget lodgings.

But even it is suffering. Restaurants and hotels that stretch along the kilometres-long corniche are almost empty.

Sheikh Nasser, a hotel owner and respected Bedouin elder, insists the South Sinai region is safe — despite the downing of the Russian plane.

For decades the Bedouin tribes of the peninsula have worked with the country’s security services to ensure safety.

"Tourists are very important and people can see that there isn’t a problem," Mr Nasser said.

He draws a line between this area and the northern Sinai, where an Islamist insurgency carries out regular attacks against security forces.

"Between here and North Sinai is about 500 kilometres," he said.

Geertrui Poelaert, a Belgian tourist, agreed. She was holidaying alone in Dahab, undertaking diving and yoga courses, and wasn’t worried.

"I feel safe, it is cheap and I would definitely recommend it to friends," she said.

Ms Poelaert is bearing in mind the major terrorist attacks which convulsed France and her own country, as well as the US and other nations.

Egypt’s claims that it is relatively safe do not seem unreasonable in that context, but they have mostly fallen on deaf ears.

Now it is swinging into action, aiming to attract large tourist numbers again.

A website launched in 14 languages last week, as part of a campaign to modernise and diversify the tourist industry.

"It is of vital importance to ensure that we give the world the chance to enjoy our treasures," Mr Rashed said.

Though there’s a big lull at the pyramids right now, Hamed remains optimistic.

Sitting at his stall just like his father, and his father before him, he said philosophically: "It is lean now, but I know where I am. They will return."

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PHOTO: A tour guide sits on a camel in front of the pyramids and Sphinx waiting desperately for tourists.