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Sinai Attacks Appear to Have Limited Effect on Egyptian Tourism


The terrorist bombings last week at resorts along Egypt's Red Sea coast raised fears of another slump in the country's tourism industry, a key sector of its economy. The industry is still recovering from the negative impact of the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, and earlier terrorist operations in Egypt that targeted tourists. Preliminary indications are that most tourists are not being deterred by the latest bombings.

Tourism is a key source of revenue for Egypt, earning $4.5 billion last year. It employs more than two million Egyptians, in a country where jobs are hard to come by. Officials expected 2004 to be a record year, with nearly 6.5 million visitors coming to the country in the first eight months.

So Egyptians have been worried that last week's car bombings in the Red Sea resort area called Taba, on the Sinai Peninsula, would cause a new slump in the industry.

A day after the attacks, civil engineer Ibrahim Abdel Meguid expressed that concern.

"People here are worried actually about the economic impacts. Not the political impacts, I don't think there will be any political impacts," he said. "But the economic impacts might be very serious, in terms of tourism, in terms of investment. This is what I think we're worried about."

But preliminary indications from Egyptian officials, travel agents and tourists are that the impact might not be as bad as had been expected.

At Panorama Tours in Cairo, manager Iman Abdel Wahab says she has registered very few cancellations for Sinai destinations, nearly a week after the Taba bombings.

"What we have seen as a response of the people is that the people [on] the second day they are all going there [to Sinai]," she said. "Nobody so far has cancelled, to any destination, even to Taba. The people are going normally. Some of them were heading to Dahab, others to Sharm [El Sheik], and they continue [to do] this. And they didn't say anything."

Ministry of Tourism spokeswoman Hala Al-Khatib does not expect any long-term negative impact either.

"I believe it's quite early to decide on the impact on the industry at large, however so far we are not getting much negative impact," she said. "People realize that this kind of explosion happens every day somewhere in the world nowadays."

Ms. Al-Khatib says many tourists link the Taba bombings to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and see them as retaliation for Israeli military actions in the Palestinian territories. No group has claimed responsibility for the bombings, and Israel says it does not think Palestinian militants are responsible for them.

The Taba Hilton hotel, which was destroyed in last week's biggest bombing, is only a short walk from the Israeli border. It has been a favorite destination for Israeli tourists ever since Israel occupied the Sinai in 1967, and continued to be one after Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, and the peninsula was returned to Egyptian control.

The explosions also damaged two nearby camping grounds. A string of such sites along the Red Sea coast are also popular destinations for Israeli tourists.

According to Israeli officials, 13 Israelis and 16 other foreign tourists were killed in the bombings, along with six Egyptians, possibly including the bombers.

Thousands of Israeli tourists quickly fled the area, leaving behind dozens of empty hotels and campsites.

The U.S. and German embassies in Cairo have warned citizens against traveling to Sinai. The British, Russian and Italian embassies are urging caution. Israel had already issued a travel warning before the bombings, which was largely ignored.

But most hotel managers and tour operators in Egypt say they are not seeing any significant drop in air travelers or room reservations.

Ms. Al-Khatib at the tourism ministry notes that travel to Taba accounts for only about one percent of Egypt's tourist trade. Other parts of the Sinai get more visitors, but the really big attractions in Egypt are the Pyramids, just outside Cairo, and sites along the Nile River south of the capital.

Visitors are still flocking to those sites, and to the National Museum in Cairo. Some admit their friends and family members were worried about their plans to travel to Egypt. But they say they are reassured by heavy security at tourist sites.

British tourist Marianne Bell says she will not let the terrorist attacks intimidate her.

"It could happen in London," she said. "It could happen, unfortunately, in New York, or anywhere. And I feel you shouldn't be intimidated by it otherwise they get to win, if nobody travels. And especially countries like this where they depend on tourism, it's such a shame if people stop coming. I think it's nice to come and support them and it's a fantastic place for us to see as well."

Egyptian officials are counting on that attitude to keep the tourism industry going, and its revenue flowing.