Fearing the worst
Saturday's attacks have catalysed concerns over tourism's future, reports Mohamed El-Sayed
Will last week's terror attacks near two of Egypt's most popular tourist attractions, the Egyptian Museum and the Citadel, have an effect on the nation's most vital industry? The attacks, which left four tourists injured, took place just as Egypt was celebrating its best year of tourism ever, with a record of eight million visitors in 2004. Solidly ahead of oil, Suez Canal revenues, and remittances, tourism is Egypt's main hard currency earner at $6.5 billion per year.
Having only recently recovered from the catastrophic impact of a wave of Islamist terror attacks that lasted from the late 1980s well into the first half of the '90s, the industry received its third blow in less than seven months. In October 2004, simultaneous bomb blasts rocked the Sinai resorts of Taba and Ras Shitan, killing 34 people and wounding more than 100. A suicide bombing near the Cairo bazaar of Khan El-Khalili last month left four people, including the bomber, dead. These incidents have had a minimal effect on the influx of tourists; nothing like the major lull that took place following the Hatshepsut Temple massacre in Luxor in 1997, which claimed the lives of 58.
Saturday's attacks, however, triggered mixed reactions, and greater concern. Officials were quick to downplay the potential impact, stressing that the incidents had no links to the series of attacks launched by Islamist militants on foreign visitors in the 1990s. "The two incidents are minor," said Tourism Minister Ahmed El-Maghrabi. He said the ministry's main preoccupation in such cases is "alleviating the suffering of the injured tourists, rather than thinking about the ramifications of the attacks [for the tourism industry."
Tourism Chambers Federation head Elhami El-Zayat said it was too early to tell what effect the attacks may have. "But I can say that as long as foreign governments and their embassies in Egypt don't issue travel advisories, everything will be okay, and there will be little effect on the industry." El-Zayat told Al-Ahram Weekly he received calls from several ambassadors who "expressed their concerns about a return of the wave of violence against tourists," but he had "reassured them". By the end of the week, El-Zayat said, things would be clearer with regards to "whether or not there will be any cancellations of reservations."
Chamber board member Khaled El-Manawi was far more pessimistic; he said he had received calls from European agents voicing their concerns. "The industry is facing a serious problem," El-Manawi said. "No one can deny that the attacks will have a very negative impact."
Emeco Travel's assistant director for inbound tourism, Salah Abdel-Mohsen, was also worried. "This is the second attack in less than a month; it is certain there will be a negative impact on the number of reservations, at least in the short run," he said. "We've gotten calls from our agents abroad voicing their concern about the attacks. Australian TV aired news of the attacks in three consecutive segments; our agents there told us that if the Australian government issues a travel warning, they will have to cancel all reservations and refund travellers' money. Our only hope is that these kinds of warnings against travelling to Egypt aren't issued."
No travel warnings had been issued until the Weekly went to press. In fact, some -- like Italian Ambassador to Egypt Antonio Badini -- made a point of telling reporters that "this incident will not have an impact on the flow of Italian tourists to Egypt."
According to El-Zayat, people have become accustomed to the possibility of such things happening anywhere. "These kinds of attacks will not deter tourists from travelling to Egypt, or any other tourist destination," he said. "Nowhere in the world is 100 per cent safe."
A Spanish couple visiting the Citadel seemed to agree. "This happens all the time, even in our country. We feel safe here."