Tourism in Egypt struggles to recover

CAIRO—Thank God for the Dutch.

If it weren’t for the Dutch, there would have been no foreign tourists here at all on Sunday, strolling among the vast shadows of the legendary pyramids of Giza or gazing in wonder at the aloof, leonine profile of the Sphinx.

Well, that isn’t quite true.

A three-member contingent of Chinese adventurers also was visiting the famed tourist site, and they briefly crossed paths in the desert with a Dutch tour group of 27 intrepid travelers.

Along with a smattering of Egyptians, these doughty international wayfarers pretty much had the place all to themselves, as tourism continues to implode in the land of the pharaohs, nearly a month after hundreds of thousands of Egyptians first took to the streets, demanding the removal of octogenarian ruler Hosni Mubarak.

Mubarak finally got the message and left town more than a week ago, but most of Egypt’s hotels are still all but deserted, not to mention its Nile cruise boats, its casinos, and the cool, stone-walled corridors of its ancient monuments.  Meanwhile, Egypt itself is once again largely at peace.

“It’s wonderful here,” enthused Sietse Plantinga of Amsterdam, who refused to let a little thing like a popular insurrection interfere with her Middle East travel plans. “Nice people. Not many tourists.”  Like other foreign travellers here, they are enjoying a rare opportunity — full access to Egypt’s vaunted ancient wonders with almost nobody else around, apart from Egyptians, of course.

In a normal year, this country attracts nearly 13 million foreign visitors, but you wouldn’t know it now.  By one estimate, roughly a million foreigners fled the country after unrest broke out on Jan. 25. And the tourists have yet to return.  Their absence imperils the livelihood of the one in every eight Egyptian workers who depends directly upon tourism to get by.

In a normal year, the industry contributes as much as 10 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product. Now, however, air carrier EgyptAir is offering to lease some 25 of its newest airplanes, along with their crews, because of a continuing dearth of passengers.

“Things are dead,” said Mohamed Ali, who should know.  Aged 31, he’s a typically ebullient Egyptian camel handler, who normally rents out his four-year-old male dromedary, named “Michael Jordan,” more than 10 times a day.

His clients are foreign visitors with a romantic streak, people who hanker to experience the pyramids in something vaguely approaching the traditional fashion, balanced upon an ornate saddle atop a lofty and compliant ungulate that, in this case, just happens to be named after a former U.S. basketball star.

Nowadays, Ali is hard-pressed to find any takers at all.  “About $20 is the normal price,” he said, before switching to a practised, beseeching tone. “It’s not too much, my brother.”  In fact, it probably is too much, considering there is nowadays almost zero demand for camel rides at Giza or for anything else in Egypt that normally appeals to foreigners.

“There is no business,” said Mohamed Ahmed, 28, a clerk at the venerable Lehnert & Landrock bookstore on Sphinx St. in the western Cairo suburb of Haram. The store, which caters to the tourist trade, is located about a five-minute walk from the Sphinx itself. “Before Jan. 25, we saw thousands of tourists a day. Now, nothing.”

Gross revenues at the store for the more than three weeks that have passed since Jan. 28, he said, amount to a paltry $500 — far less than the $850 or so he would normally expect to earn, not in a matter of weeks, but on a single February day.

He said the collapse in trade is even worse than the vertiginous decline this country’s tourist industry suffered following a 1997 terrorist attack in Luxor, in which 58 foreigners died.  Many here expect the trade to recover fairly quickly. By March, they say, the tourists should return.

Their arrival can’t come soon enough for Hanan Ragab, 30, an itinerant vendor who supports her husband and their three children by selling stone carvings of the pyramids for five pounds — or 84 cents — apiece. She last sold one of the things more than three weeks ago, and she’s getting desperate.

“I’m living on my savings,” she said. “I’m going to run out soon. Send the tourists back, please.”

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