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December 13, 2011

Concerns Over New Parliament Add to Egypt’s Tourism Woes

by Noel King

Egyptians working in the tourism industry say they fear conservatives in the nation's next parliament may have a negative impact on their business. About one in eight Egyptians works in tourism and a blow to the sector would further damage the struggling Egyptian economy.

Hotel in Tahrir

Baha Salah has owned and operated the Cairo Inn in central Cairo for three years. Salah says his 10-room hotel has a few big selling points. It is clean and comfortable. And it is only a short walk to attractions like the Egyptian Museum.

But the Cairo Inn is also only a few hundred meters from Tahrir Square.

And that has made it less attractive to tourists.

"They focus on Tahrir, which is not Egypt. It’s very - it amazes me. In TV, in the media, when they show Tahrir, people get scared. But Tahrir is not Egypt," said Salah. "I am near Tahrir, like two blocks away and I know the news from the TV."

Tourism

Egypt's tourism sector has struggled since the massive street protests that shook major cities in January and February and forced the ouster of long-time President Hosni Mubarak. A senior tourism official told Reuters news agency this week that tourism revenue is down by about 30 percent in 2011 from the previous year.

Still, Baha Salah says he could adapt to problems cause by insecurity. He says his bigger worry is Egypt’s next parliament.

Egypt is in the midst of three rounds of parliamentary elections. Nine of Egypt's governorates vote in each round. In the first round, conservative parties did unexpectedly well.

Concerns after elections

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood commanded around 37 percent of the vote. But what surprised many was the success of the more conservative Salafi parties, which took about 24 percent. Salafis want Egypt to adhere strictly to the principles of Islamic law.

For tourists this could mean a ban on alcohol and revealing swimwear on Egypt’s beaches. A spokesman with the Salafi Nour party recently told Egypt’s Dream TV that pharaonic monuments like the Sphinx are idolatrous and should be covered up.

Salafis

Baha Salah says he’s not certain that the Salafis know what’s best for Egypt.

"It’s crazy," said Salah. "I mean, they should get arrested for things like this. If it’s not coming from the head of the party, they should be investigated and not let it happen again, because it really scared people."

Tour guide Rami Aboud is also worried. He says the Salafi party appeared out of nowhere on the political scene - and he wonders if  they have the right experience to turn around the struggling economy.

"As for the Salafi, I can’t stand these people," said Aboud. "I can’t stand those people, they are just new people, appeared suddenly, called Salafi. They have a strong point against tourism, the method of tourists, dealing with the beaches, wearing bikinis.

"I think that’s not the problem. That’s not the big problem," he added. "The big problem in our country is to live. Most of the people is living from hand to mouth. So, you have to solve the basic problems."  

Egypt's Salafis say they don't want to hurt the tourism industry. They have put forth several suggestions for sin-free tourism, including gender-segregated beaches, and allowing tourists to drink alcohol - but only in their hotel rooms.

Conservatives and tourism

Maged Negm, the dean of the Faculty of Tourism and Hotel Management at Helwan University in Cairo, says some of the Salafi suggestions for sin-free tourism are not pragmatic.

"We need to adapt people, to orient people and to [be] aware [of] how important this sector [is] to the whole of the country, to the individual and to the image of the country," said Negm.

Egypt's conservative parties do not seem united in their plans for the tourism sector. Some candidates from Salafi parties and the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party have disavowed statements that are viewed as harmful to the tourism industry.

Tour operators say they appreciate those statements, but they worry that for foreign tourists it only adds to the confusion over which direction Egypt is heading.