Tourism is important to Egypt's economy, and Egyptian officials hope a traveling exhibit on King Tut will bring American visitors to their country. The exhibit "King Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs" opened last week (June 16) in Los Angeles. Egyptian officials say the long-dead ruler has become an important part of their marketing effort.
Outside the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, archeologist Zahi Hawass joked that King Tut has been appointed an Egyptian ambassador, who will take a message about Egypt to Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
"For King Tut to be in these four cities, this will make lots of good understanding between the Americans and Egyptians," Mr. Hawass says.
He says the former monarch, while sparking interest in Egyptian history, should also help the country's economy. Ahmed El-Maghraby, Egypt's tourism minister, tells VOA the long-dead envoy is doing his job well.
"You can see the level of interest that has been raised by his presence here in Los Angeles. I have watched a lot of the programs on television here in the morning. I have seen the newspapers. It really has made the effect that we were hoping for," Mr. El-Maghraby says.
In the 1980s, Americans accounted for one-third of Egypt's tourists. While the Egyptian tourism industry has grown from a few hundred thousand a year to nine million expected this year, Mr. El-Maghraby says the number of U.S. tourists has declined. The increase comes from Western Europe.
"Countries like Italy, Germany, each provide one-million visitors to Egypt a year," Mr. El-Maghraby says.
Part of the reason for the drop in American visitors is the fear of terrorism. In 1997, Islamic militants massacred more than 60 people at Luxor. Last year, at least 34 people, mostly Israeli tourists, were killed in bombings at two Red Sea resorts.
The Egyptian official says despite the publicity surrounding these incidents, Egypt is as safe as most other countries.
"And I think the important thing is that the traveler has elected not to be intimidated by a small group of criminals that could operate and could strike anywhere in the world," Mr. El-Maghraby says.
He notes that European visitors have not been deterred.
Tourism is a critical source of foreign currency for Egypt, bringing six-billion dollars into the country. Tourism also offsets high levels of unemployment. One million tourist arrivals create 200,000 jobs, and Egypt must create 600,000 jobs a year to keep up with its growing population.
Tourism minister El-Maghraby expects to see solid results from Tut's U.S. visit.
"I think King Tut will be very disappointed if he doesn't see the number of American arrivals jump from 200,000 to 500,000 before he returns home in two years," Mr. El-Maghraby says.
Archeologist Zahi Hawass says his country's rich history attracts visitors, but Egypt must spend nearly $200 million a year preserving its mummies and historical sites. That, he says, is his job, and tourists can help with it.
"And that is why I encourage all of you to come and visit us, because we need to take the money from your pockets (laughter). Then we can restore the Egyptian monuments," Mr. Hawass says.