Post-revolution, Egypt tourism remains in disarray

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt Fri Apr 22, 2011 5:15pm BST

A guide stands near the Djoser's step pyramid in Saqqara, outside of Cairo March 5, 2011. REUTERS/Peter Andrews

A guide stands near the Djoser's step pyramid in Saqqara, outside of Cairo March 5, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Peter Andrews

SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (Reuters) - Hotel worker Meena George rejoiced when a popular revolt ousted Egypt's autocratic president, but since the tourists have stopped coming, his joy has given way to fear and desperation.

George was made redundant by his employers at the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, and has resorted to borrowing more and more money from his friends to survive.

"The revolution is good, but painful," said George, 33. "Many of my friends have fallen on hard times as we get laid off, because business is slow."

From the Pyramids of Giza to the Red Sea resorts, tourist numbers have plummeted to just a trickle, dealing a devastating blow to the millions of Egyptians whose livelihoods depend on the 14 million or so visitors who once thronged to the country.

At the height of the 18-day uprising that ousted president Hosni Mubarak, embassies issued travel warnings and many tour groups cancelled their trips, throwing an industry that is a major source of foreign currency into crisis.

Two months later, the chaos has largely subsided, the police who deserted their posts during protests are mostly back on the job and the travel warnings have been eased.

But the tourists have yet to return, and Egypt's tourism minister has forecast the industry's 2011 revenue will be 25 percent lower than the previous year.

NO TOURISTS, NO MONEY

"I can hardly recall a single tourist coming into my shop recently," said Omar Mohamed Saed, the 59-year-old owner of a store selling copper goods in Khan el-Khalili, the main bazaar in Islamic Cairo. "The uprising killed us."

Saed was already struggling before the uprising as the number of Western tourists declined due to the global economic downturn. He said the most he had made in one day since the protests was 1,000 Egyptian pounds (101.72 pounds), adding he had asked his employees to work fewer days so he could afford to pay them.

Four families live off the income from Ahmed Salamah's Cairo souvenir shop. He says he is struggling to feed his own wife and three children from his now meagre income.

"I have sold nothing since the revolution started," said Salamah, 36. "All day I sit in the shop and watch TV."

At the Giza Pyramids, the country's most popular attraction and a must-see destination for visitors to Cairo, not one Western tourist could be seen as the sun set on a weekday in April, one of the prime months of the year for holidaymakers.

With fewer potential customers, the street vendors and rogue guides that typically hover near Egypt's famous landmarks seem to be preying more aggressively on tourist wallets.

A party of German and French tourists visiting the Pyramids recently said tourist police looked on as a gaggle of touts followed them around the site competing for their attention.

"One thrust an opened can of drink into my hand and demanded I pay for it," said German tourist Alex.

MUGGINGS, THEFT

As the scorching summer approaches, tourism officials are hoping for a pick-up in business from September. But that depends on the security situation, said Brigadier Mohammad Al-Mogati, the Arab League's assistant for tourism security.

Political unrest has waned, but army vehicles can still be see on some streets and embassies are now warning citizens against an increase in muggings, robberies and racketeering in Egypt. War is also raging in neighboring Libya.

In Sharm, which hardly saw a whiff of the protests that shook the capital and other cities, glum-faced souvenir merchants idle outside empty shops along an almost deserted walkway at Naama Bay and in the Old Town market.

Security has been tight at Egypt's busiest Red Sea resort since a series of bombings by Islamist militants in 2005 killed over 80 people, most of them Egyptians, and wounded hundreds. Police and security guards patrol resorts, using metal detectors and airport-style x-ray machines to search those entering.

Mubarak, who turned the town into a major tourist attraction, is now in Sharm's hospital. Some residents say his presence in the resort had become a liability.

"Tourists come to Sharm to have a good time," said Galal Shabaan, a 33-year-old shop owner. "You can't relax with Mubarak around and the spectre of protests hanging over Sharm."

TAHRIR TOURISTS

Despite an increasingly grim picture, Hala el-Khatib, secretary general of the Egyptian Hotels Association, said nationwide, hotel occupancy was only down by 15 percent in April compared to the same month a year ago.

She said hotel occupancy in Sharm had recovered to 32 percent by mid-April from an abysmal 11 percent after the protests erupted on January 25.

But it was still a far cry from the 75 percent rate hotels in the resort are accustomed to at this time of year.

Still, Khatib remains optimistic, and says landmarks of the revolution such as Cairo's Tahrir Square, which became internationally renowned as the gathering place of the protests, are featuring on some tourist itineraries.

"Security is getting better day by day. People have a different view of Egypt, they have a more positive view. They want to include Tahrir in their program," she said.

(Additional reporting by Dina Zayed; Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Miral Fahmy and Sophie Hares)