|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
Date: 21 - 27 May, 1998
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Prudently optimisticIn an interview on the prospects for tourism, Minister of Tourism Mamdouh El-Beltagui shared his optimism with Rehab Saad
I feel that things are moving quicker, and more positively, towards normality than anyone expected. I always tend to be conservative; I try to temper the over-optimism and the over-dramatisation of the media concerning the Luxor accident, in a more objective way.
It is necessary for an official to state what is actually happening. That is why I admit that it was a very serious incident; I neither underestimate its consequences, nor overestimate its repercussions. We experienced a drop of 51.7 per cent in tourism in December of last year, but fortunately things moved forward, far quicker than our expectations. In three months time, from January to March, we regained 60 per cent of the arrivals of the same period in 1997, which is considered a 'record year.'
April offered a surprise in terms of the number of incoming tourists, as we regained 86.2 per cent compared to April 1997. Therefore, the total decrease in arrivals during the four months fell from 40 to 33 per cent. If this trend continues, we will attain the objective of the ministry -- to return to the normal rate of incoming tourists -- perhaps earlier than anticipated.
It is interesting to note that the first three months of this year were particularly alarming, because there were several official warnings, coupled with extensive cancellations by major tour operators working with Egypt. However, it is certainly worth noting that the tourists who visited during the first quarter of this year were mainly individual tourist decision-makers who come to Egypt to see for themselves. They came despite warnings and cancellations of programmes.
Let us bear in mind a few facts: April was an impressive month, and hopefully no more negative warnings or adverse travel advisories are issued; also, we have had a strong recovery from some European countries, as well as strong pick-up from the Arab world; the majority of tour operators have resumed their programmes to Egypt; and finally, knowing that our promotion campaign is going on as scheduled -- considering all these facts, one can afford to be prudently optimistic.
Would you tell us about your strategy in overcoming the alarming situation that followed the Luxor massacre?
We have conceived a plan of action at four levels. The first is a network of contacts and discussions at the official level which, I might add, is strongly supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to encourage the sending of fact-finding missions to Egypt to assure foreigners of the state of security. We believe it is our duty to have the respective governments see for themselves; to acknowledge that security measures have, indeed, been taken, because their citizens are entitled to every assurance. As a result of these missions, I am pleased to see that the majority of countries around the world cancelled their warnings against travel to Egypt. The only two exceptions are Switzerland and Japan.
The second level of action is with our partners abroad -- tour operators and travel agents from the most important markets generating tourism to Egypt. This contact took place through correspondence, by holding meetings and by attending fairs and bourses abroad. The aim was to underline the positive steps taken to ensure safety for travellers in Egypt, and encourage them (tour operators and travel agents) to boost their efforts to re-programme Egypt and market our product.
The third level mainly utilises international mass media, especially tourist-specialised media. We've been organising familiarisation trips for people from the media to visit and get acquainted with our tourist attractions, the extraordinary quality of the product we are offering and also to meet with Egyptians to see and acknowledge the fact that they are peaceful and friendly, and that terrorism has no future in such a community of people characterised by tolerance and opposition to violence.
Finally, the fourth level of action was with our partners in the industry here in Egypt. We've been in constant touch with them, exchanging information, supporting efforts in marketing, in organising road shows and attending noteworthy professional gatherings abroad.
The shopping festival being planned for this summer is the first of its kind to be held in Egypt. Can you tell us how it came about?
The thought came as a result of obtaining full information of a successful experience launched in Dubai. Organisers of that festival came to me last year and said that they would be ready to show us how to organise such a festival in Egypt, bearing in mind the differences between the two countries.
The idea was presented by the Ministry of Tourism to the cabinet, which approved it, and a higher ministerial committee has been asked to elaborate on the options and the necessary measures to be taken to ensure its success. The ministries of finance, trade and tourism headed several working sessions together with representatives of the tourism and trade industries, the Egyptian union of industries, union of Egyptian banks, unions of tourism, in addition to concerned authorities and EgyptAir.
During the shopping festival month we are offering packages of reduced air tickets, hotel accommodation, ground services, tours and discounts in shops and malls which have been selected to participate, and there will also be discounts at theatres and restaurants. Finally, and most importantly, cultural and artistic activities will be held for the duration of the festival.
We have already started to market this event and we have strong support from all concerned, including TV, radio and press. Such an event will undoubtedly be a welcome addition to our local attractions.
Some of the recent road shows have been directed to Arab countries. Was this to encourage them to visit during the festival?
No, the idea of road shows is well-known in the marketing of tourism. It was introduced by the Ministry of Tourism in 1994. We launched our first to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, and now we are going again. The idea of the road show is to present, in the limited period of three or four days, a strong message of promotion and marketing; to meet officials, media people, tour operators and travel agents; to permit the private sector to make contacts in order to give a strong boost to their efforts; to listen to their requirements so that we can arrange to avoid obstacles and make their visit to Egypt more suited to their comfort, requirements and taste.
The last road show went to several Arab countries, including Kuwait, Oman and the UAE. I attended the latter, in Dubai, during the exhibition of Al-Multaqa. It was very effective and we succeeded in receiving a strong commitment from our partners to work together. We also made deals for the coming seasons.
Normally, the attendance of the minister guarantees media coverage which is very helpful. In addition, I participated in marketing the upcoming Arab season in Egypt this summer, and took advantage of announcing and promoting the two major upcoming events: the month of shopping and tourism, and the Fourth International Song Festival.
The whole world is working on special events for the millennium. Is there anything absolutely unique that we're going to concentrate on in Egypt?
Yes, there are three major plans in progress. One concerns the Flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, the second involves celebrations on the Giza plateau, and the third, a dramatic occurrence to take place at midnight.
But first, let me say that we presented a written paper to the cabinet last year suggesting the formation of a high ministerial committee to supervise all preparations for the millennium. With the approval of (Prime Minister Kamal) El-Ganzouri, the committee has already met several times. They were mainly examining the suggestions of the minister of tourism which consisted of two major events. The first traces the Flight into Egypt. This has entailed identifying the most important resting places of the Holy Family, and doing the necessary restoration work needed at these sites, in addition to carrying out appropriate infrastructure and environmental preparations.
We have been in contact with the Coptic Patriarchate and an authentic official text has been reviewed by Pope Shenoudah himself. It has been translated into eight languages. A team of photographers traced the major points on the itinerary and have photographed them. Their work on icons, churches, and other attractions have already been sent for colour separation and type-setting and will appear soon.
The second major plan is an effort to coordinate the various requests of tour operators and international companies for the celebration on Giza plateau. I have received at least five serious offers with specific functions, and to decide on the merit of each needs collaboration with the minister of culture and the Supreme Council of Antiquities. In order to make the necessary arrangements, the different functions have to be coordinated. It requires international expertise, music and theatre direction. Michel Jarre, the famous French organiser of the celebration marking 200 years since the French revolution, came to meet the minister of culture and myself, and we are working on this.
The third idea on which we are currently working was proposed by the Minister of Culture. It is to install the missing nine-foot golden pyramidion on the top of Khufu's Great Pyramid at midnight. That event will be the climax of the celebrations that Egypt is preparing for the millennium.
How would you sum up achievements of the past and the prospects for the future?
Egypt is witnessing an exciting and positive evolution in the tourism industry... In fact, since 1982, the year when we regained sovereignty over Sinai and also the beginning of the tenure of President Mubarak, the country has been going through extremely rapid and sustained tourism development.
The economic policy at that time was to start from scratch, especially regarding the infrastructure which was below zero; it was in terrible shape. And that was why Egypt has invested more than $50 billion during the last 16 years to improve the infrastructure and public utilities. This allowed investors to move away from traditional tourist destinations in the Nile Valley and explore and invest in development projects elsewhere. We now have a new and enlarged tourism product, namely, recreational and beach tourism. Earlier, Egypt was purely a destination for Pharaonic sites. In diversifying over a period of time, we can now say that Egypt has a tourist industry.
We have also added other attractions such as conventions, exhibitions, curative and eco-tourism and lake cruises and Nile cruises. As a result, we have been able to create a tourist agenda which includes 30 cultural, artistic, sportive and other events.
After having passed through a successful period of economic reform, incentives, guarantees and legal administration, investors from Egypt and abroad have been encouraged to take part in the tourism developing process. As a result, lodging capacity was raised from 18,000 rooms in 1982 to 75,000 in 1997. And we now have 603 projects under construction.
I mentioned before that we had 665 projects, but as a matter of fact, we have withdrawn the licences of 62 projects because investors did not respect or follow our schedule of implementation. The budget of the 603 projects is estimated at LE31 billion ($9 billion). Within three to five years, we will have an added lodging capacity of 112,000 rooms, which is far below the saturation point because we do not want to over-develop and repeat the mistakes of some other countries who savage their natural resources. We are being very strict in terms of our environment as well as our archaeological sites. We believe that this is the only sound way to develop the industry.
How is Egypt prepared, in tourism terms, to meet the technological challenges of the coming century?
All humanity is engaged in preparing for the coming millennium in technology. We have been making great strides in the last 16 years. We are confident in the future, and there is a trend of extension and development today, of manpower, human resources and strategy.
From the tourism point of view, if we are not leading, we are not far behind in these developments. We have training programmes and scholarships. 'Quality' is the key word in terms of services and environment. And technology in tourism has been introduced in marketing, promotion and advertising. Most important of all, Egypt has 7,000 tourist or travel-related pages on the Internet.