The September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States have taken a heavy toll on the tourism industry worldwide, and Egypt is no exception, with officials predicting losses of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs. Egypt is no stranger to the devastating effects of terrorism on the tourism industry.
The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism estimates 20,000 industry-related jobs have been lost in Egypt since the September 11 attacks in the United States. Some in the industry believe the figure is much higher. The ministry estimates the jobs of 2.2 million people in Egypt are directly or indirectly related to tourism.
In an interview with VOA, Egypt's tourism minister, Mamdouh El-Beltagui, says recovery is beyond any one country's control, and the current U.S.-led military action in Afghanistan compounds the uncertainty.
"The bad news is the current crisis is an international one, so the tools and the means to manage this crisis is not within our reach, and it is not within the reach of any country, specifically," said Mr. El-Beltagui. "It depends on so many factors that are not directly related to tourism. It's a political factor, military actions - possible extensions in time and duration of this military action."
The latest blow to Egypt's tourism industry comes as the country was just beginning to fully recover from the November 17, 1997, terrorist attack in the resort town of Luxor, in which 58 tourists were killed. In the first year after that attack, Egypt reportedly lost $700 million in tourism revenues and hotel occupancy rates were as low as 20 - 25 percent.
President Hosni Mubarak stepped up an anti-terrorism campaign that included a crackdown on extremist groups and heightened security, while Egyptian hotel chains and cruise liners offered cut-rate deals to lure tourists back to Egypt.
By the year 2000, Egypt enjoyed record tourism revenues of $4.5 billion. This year, tourism officials expect the figure to be less than $3.5 billion, and, according to Mr. El-Beltagui, the near future looks grim. "The most worrying thing is there is no further future booking for the winter season," he said. "Those are the facts and figures. What we can do is work. That is the only way, not to weep."
Tourism officials say occupancy rates throughout Egypt are averaging 52 percent going into the country's winter tourism season, compared with the usual 78 percent at this time of year.
Elhmy El-Zayat is president of the Egyptian Travel Association and also owns one of the country's largest travel agencies. He says individual bookings to Egypt through his agency for next year are down 90 percent and convention bookings are down 95 percent. According to him, the decline in the tourism industry will have repercussions throughout the economy.
"If the airlines start laying off people, if the airlines start retiring aircraft, the companies that produce the aircraft will start laying off people," said Mr. El-Zayat. "It's a vicious circle. All those who are producing things for the tourism industry - we believe there are at least 55 industries directly related to tourism - will collapse."
The Arab Civil Aviation Commission says the airlines of 16 Arab countries are expected to post losses totaling between $500 million and $1 billion this year, due mainly to a drop in tourism. Egyptair, according to the commission, will be among the hardest hit.
In an effort to lure tourists, Egyptair says it will reduce domestic airfares by 40 percent, starting November 1. Fees and surcharges normally imposed on tourists are either being frozen or waived. Many hotels are also reducing their rates. People working in the tourism industry are being offered low interest rates on refinanced loans. And there is discussion of waiving bank charges on late payments.
Ahmed El-Naggar is an economist with the al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. He believes a recovery will have to begin in the United States before it makes its way to Egypt. He notes that Americans make up nearly 5 percent of tourists coming to Egypt. There were 237,000 American tourists last year, and they spent about $195 million. He said their absence will be felt.
Here, as elsewhere, many believe the tourism industry will not fully recover until the public regains its confidence in the safety of travel.