* Egypt tourist minister says visitor numbers have seen sharp jump
* Industry to contribute 15 percent of GDP this year
* Some direct flights to Sharm el Sheikh likely to resume
By Marc Jones
LONDON, Nov 6 (Reuters) - A sharp rebound in Egypt’s tourist numbers will see the industry contribute around 15 percent of the country’s economic output this year, its tourism minister has said.
While the lure of Egypt’s ancient pyramids and other tombs has never been in doubt, overseas visitor numbers are only now making what seems to be a true recovery from more than seven years of extremist attacks and political upheaval.
Visitor levels were up around 40 percent year-on-year at the end of September and if the trend continues it will mean annual tourist numbers will top 10 million for the first time since 2012.
“In 2017 we closed the year at around 7.5 million (visitors). Since the start of 2018 the numbers are very handsome and there is a very steep slope (of growth),” Rania Al-Mashat, who became Egypt’s tourism minister in January, told Reuters.
Although she would not put an exact forecast on the numbers, Al-Mashat added that tourism will contribute “more than 15 percent of GDP” this year having become the country’s fastest growth sector again.
It has been helped by easing security tensions and a weak Egyptian pound which makes it cheaper for budget-conscious travellers, but the government is also embarking on major projects to try to ensure the visitors keep coming.
Though delayed, it plans to open a new 165,000-square metre Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) in 2020 as part of an even larger 491,000-square metre complex two kilometres from the pyramids and the Sphinx of Giza.
It will display more than 100,000 artefacts, including 20,000 that have never been on view before as well as all 5,400 that were discovered in the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922.
The government has drawn up a shortlist of international firms to operate the museum and will pick one by the middle of next year, the GEM project’s director Tarek Tawfik said.
Not all Egypt’s problems have been resolved, however.
In August, two British holidaymakers died in a hotel in the Red Sea resort of Hurghada and their daughter has since given a newspaper interview saying she believed “certain organs” had been removed from her parents’ bodies before they were returned.
Asked whether organs had been removed, Al-Mashat said “everything was done consistent with international laws”. Asked whether all organs were still in the bodies when they were repatriated, she replied: “I do not have that information”.
There are also still no direct flights from major tourist markets like Britain and Russia to the country’s biggest Red Sea resort, Sharm el Sheikh.
The two countries suspended flights there in 2015 after all 224 people on board a Russian plane returning to St Petersburg were killed when a bomb exploded shortly after takeoff over Sinai.
There are ongoing efforts to restore the direct connections. Al-Mashat said it was “definitely” likely those to Russia would restart and that Egypt was now sharing more airport security and general intelligence with other governments.
“That is totally up to the authorities,” she said. “We are ready to welcome them anytime.” (Reporting by Marc Jones, editing by Ed Osmond)