Can Alex attract?
Amid Alexandria's hopes to pull in foreign tourists, Rehab Saad
sees potential and obstacles
I stopped the taxi in front of San Stefano mall in Alexandria. A large group of girls and boys, chatting and laughing, were standing at a corner waiting for their friends. Groups of friends and families were sitting in Starbucks café, annexed to the mall, socialising over their coffee and freshly baked pastries. I entered the mall and took the escalator to the second floor where the pre- opening offices of Four Seasons San Stefano Hotel lie. Every one seemed busy since there were only a few days left before the hotel's soft opening in July. Workers were putting the final touches to the hotel's ballroom, rooms, and outlets, employees were glued to their computers monitoring the flow of work and a number of young trainees were sitting in front of a big screen listening to their instructor.
Much attention is being drawn to the hotel, not only because it is another five-star edifice to be added to Alexandria but also because it will introduce a new category of luxury and sophistication not known before in the Mediterranean city. According to the hotel's officials, they are creating, with the introduction of such a facility, a destination.
The advent of the Four Seasons chain in Alexandria and the expected influx of tourists it would bring incited other international chains operating in Egypt's second largest city to reconsider their properties, upgrade their facilities and in some cases launch extensive renovation schemes, in order to challenge the competition. Most tourist experts believe that the effort, together with the urban and tourist development taking place in the city whether along the Corniche, in Borg Al-Arab Airport or in the sea port, will help recapture Alexandria's glory as a cosmopolitan city and a melting pot of civilisations which would thus attract foreign travellers, especially those coming from the Mediterranean countries including the Greeks and Italians.
Despite Alexandria's various attractions, the number of foreign tourists targeting the city is so far low. Most visitors are mainly Egyptians and other Arabs. The Asian market is the top foreign nationality visiting Alexandria followed by the French and Germans.
Hoteliers claim there are two seasons in Alexandria. The summer season starts from mid-June to mid-September whereas the remaining nine months are considered winter. Egyptians and other Arabs are the main summer visitors with Egyptians constituting 90 per cent and Arabs 10 per cent. In winter, Alexandria works extensively on conference tourism and corporate business. Big oil, pharmaceutical and shipping companies, whether local or international, organise conferences in Alexandria. There are also the commercial ships passing by Alexandria port and the long-staying guests upon whom the hotels of Alexandria depend much.
Because Alexandria has always relied on the local market which depended mainly on furnished flats during vacations, most international hotel chains did not open properties in the city except Sheraton Montazah and Helnan Palestine hotels. However, after the opening of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina which once again put the city in the spotlight, a number of international chains came calling -- Accor, Hilton, Marriott and most recently Four Seasons. More chains are expected to open in the next few years such as the Holiday Inn and Radisson. "The establishment of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina made Alexandria the venue for major conferences in all fields as well as a place for cultural events. This increased the number of travellers staying in Alexandria and attracted big hotel chains to invest in the city," said Mai El-Ekiabi, assistant marketing communications manager at the Renaissance Alexandria Hotel. El-Ekiabi added that the increase in the number of rooms and the availability of international chains will upgrade the city, thus, attracting more foreign travellers to Alexandria.
The Four Season San Stefano is expected to play a big role in that respect. The location of the hotel, the refined services it will offer and the exclusive facilities it possesses will definitely bring a new dimension to tourism for the city. Most of the 118 rooms feature private balconies, offering panoramic vistas of the sea and the glittering city. Designed by Pierre Yves Rochon, the rooms and suites are elegantly decorated in various combinations of greens and blues against a creamy yellow background, the colour scheme reflecting a classic European design with a touch of Mediterranean warmth and freshness.
Fine dining is expected to be introduced by the Four Seasons San Stefano. For the first time, hotel residents, together with local residents, will have the liberty of selecting from nine refined dining experiences ranging from the hotel's premier restaurant Byblos with its menus of Lebanese and French cuisine, to Fresca Café and Gelateria where café culture will take on a whole new meaning and ice cream delights can be enjoyed. Guests will taste authentic Italian cuisine at Stefano's, Mediterranean delights at Kala and light snacks and tapas in Bleu. San Stefano officials believe there is no other place in Alexandria where you can dine in such luxury and with this service. "We'll also change dining concepts among Alexandrians. People of Alexandria are not used to dining in hotels; they eat only in restaurants. It's now time to change that. I'm sure they will be satisfied with the service and variety," said Stephan Killinger, general manager of the new property.
On touring the outlets, I was impressed by the Mediterranean Kala restaurant as well as the Lebanese Byblos. Kala's colours of curtains, chairs, table covers and ceiling are suitably selected white and blue, the traditional Greek colours, which gives the place a Mediterranean touch. Guests can see the chefs while they cook through the open kitchen. They can also book a place for themselves in a Greek cooking class to be held once a week by Mama Zulia, a Greek who was born in Alexandria and who works at the Greek Club.
Byblos was another masterpiece with its designs and decorations. The walls are all padded with fabric and its handmade wooden doors are inlaid with mother-of-pearl by master craftsmen in Lebanon. The restaurant is expected to be a landmark of the city.
Another thing the hotel will introduce in Alexandria is the spa culture. Although spas are widespread in Cairo's five- and four-star chains, there is not a single one in Alexandria. Four Seasons' spa will offer a range of workout equipment in the gym, a whirlpool, steam and sauna as well as a comprehensive menu of health and beauty treatments.
Other facilities in the hotel will include meeting and conference rooms and a ballroom which will accommodate up to 700 people.
The hotel's private beach and marina, linked to the hotel by an underground tunnel, is another story. Ashraf El-Manawati, director of marketing, says the beach will include chalets and villas with private swimming pools, a marina for yachts and a small shopping mall. "It will be kind of another resort by the beach." It still has a year to 18 months before it opens.
"Alexandria is known to Egyptian and Gulf travellers but I believe over time we'll be attractive for European markets," said Killinger. He added that there are many attractions for Europeans like the sunken treasures and the small museums which relate the city's history. "In Berlin, the sunken treasures exhibit attracted about one million people. They will be interested to come to Alexandria and see the homeland of these treasures. Others could be attracted to some of the museums like that of Cavafy, a Greek poet who lived in Alexandria. Such museums, though small, are very interesting to the visitor because they tell a lot about the history of the city. Here there are tons and tons of stories and history," Killinger said.
History, in fact, is one of the things that the hotel depends on in its marketing technique. It was after all built on the same site as the old San Stefano Hotel. The lobby lounge menu is full of black and white photos of San Stefano where guests can see and read its history while selecting their meal. The old hotel used to be the social centre for people of prestige and elites and the new one will be a unique place for those who want to be served with elegance.
San Stefano's history dates back to 1854 when the wealthy Greek first count Etienne Zizinia, an entrepreneur and confidant of Egypt's Mohamed Ali, became the first European settler in the Ramleh area. Zizinia had bought land in Ramleh from the Bedouin Abu Shaal family to build his Ramleh residence and a private chapel, St Stefano, after which the district and its station were named.
On 26 June 1887, Khedive Tewfiq inaugurated Ramleh Casino and Hotel (also known later as San Stefano Hotel). The original design is attributed to the architect Bogos Nubar, while the supervision of the execution works were entrusted to K Merametdjian of the Ecole de Beaux-Art in Paris.
The San Stefano Hotel was built on 31,000 square metres of prime real estate overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The lattice wooden shaded verandahs, music kiosk and segregated bathing, together with its back gardens and tennis courts, offered much of the desired summer sports facilities and ambiance for social events.
Today the San Stefano complex sits on the same site, with a 170-metre frontage alongside the beach and 45 metres of its total front facing the Corniche. Fourteen metres of Hammam Al-Sayedat Street stretches along its east side, 22 metres of Casino Street cuts through the west side, and 45 metres of Abdel-Salam Aref Street borders the southern area.
According to Four Seasons officials, it is their task to renew the memories that have preserved Alex's charm and history and to revive San Stefano's days of glamour and glory.
But will the Four Seasons become a threat to other five-star chains in Alexandria?
The answer is "no" because Alexandria still needs more hotel rooms. According to hoteliers, the demand is more than the supply. However, they stressed, they should be prepared for the competition. "We, hotels, had to take quick action to meet the competition," said Atef Wilson, general manager of Montazah Sheraton Hotel. "We had four years of extensive renovations in the 14-floor Sheraton Montazah Hotel. Renovations included all guest rooms, corridors, the ballroom, the swimming pool area, and the restaurants. We dedicated certain floors, club floors, for businessmen accommodation and we opened a gym equipped with all sports facilities for the exclusive use of hotel guests."
Wilson said they had been working hard in the last four years to stay ahead of the competition in order to face a new strong supply that will appear soon. "It's not only the Four Seasons that will open in the coming period in Alexandria but other five- star chains will too. We also should not ignore the competition with properties on the northern coast and the west northern coast. There is big development up there like the gigantic projects of Porto Marino and Sidi Abdel-Rahman," Wilson said, adding that a new extension of Montazah Sheraton will be established adjacent to the main hotel which will include 160 rooms and suites in addition to a meeting room which will accommodate 1,000 guests, three restaurants, a floor for businessmen and a new business centre.
Other hotels in Alexandria followed the renovation trend such as Cecil, Mercure and Renaissance which closed for two years for an extensive makeover.
"Alexandria has big tourist potential. It started to take its place on the international tourist map after these developments and after the opening of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and the existence of attraction centres such as the Montazah Gardens, the Qaitbey Fortress, sunken treasures and diving tourism. Diving for sunken treasures has resulted in tremendous promotion for Alexandria," Wilson said, adding that the expansions in the airports of Alexandria had attracted many airlines to the city.
According to tourist officials, Borg Al-Arab Airport, besides its regular clients of Lufthansa and British Airways, is now receiving aircraft of Emirates and Qatar Airways which usually attract tourists from the Far East. Saudi and Kuwait Airlines carry Arab Gulf clients who want to spend their vacation in Alexandria. During religious feasts and the New Year, the airport receives a number of charter flights from Istanbul.
The expansions in Borg Al-Arab Airport will be completed, according to officials, in 2009 when it will be able to receive jumbo craft which will turn Alexandria into an international tourist hub. A new terminal will also be built to receive 1,000 passengers per hour.
The airport of Al-Alamein also receives chartered flights from Italy where Italian travellers go on sightseeing tours in Alexandria or in Marsa Matrouh, west of Alexandria.
Traffic in the marine port of Alexandria is also expected to revive tourism to the city. The port currently receives ships carrying from 1,200 to 3,000 tourists a day. Some of them venture in Alexandria or to Al-Alamein on the northern coast. Sometimes tourists come by plane from Borg Al-Arab Airport to visit Cairo and Alexandria then return to their homeland by ship from Alexandria port. At other times tourists aboard ship visit Alexandria and Cairo, then travel by plane from Cairo Airport to their respective countries.
In a normal itinerary, tourists coming by ship go to Cairo and Alexandria, then return by ship.
"The big development taking place on the North Coast will positively affect Alexandria," says Sherif El-Laboudi, general manager of Mercure Hotel. "Major investors are injecting money in this area turning it into a major destination. Both Alexandria and the North Coast will be sold as one product."
However, the percentage of tourists coming to Alexandria is low. "There should be more efforts from the government's side to promote Alexandria among other destinations. The Chamber of Tourist Establishments should sell Alexandria's hotels as they sell Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada. Alexandria is only sold as an optional tour or as an overnight option. This is nonsense. A city with all of these attractions should be correctly promoted. The travel agencies in Alexandria are also weak," El-Laboudi said.
"Yes, we are focussing on the Red Sea and Sharm El-Sheikh and Sinai in general because we have almost 110,000 rooms out of 180,000 rooms in that area, so we must devote more money to this part of our campaign than to the rest of Egypt, including Alexandria, Luxor and Aswan," said Amr El-Ezaby, head of the Egyptian Tourist Authority (ETA).
El-Ezaby added that even with the new major projects on the North Coast, only 4,000 rooms will be added. "It isn't worth it yet. But we have other means at our disposal. For example, we are supporting the companies who are conducting direct sales for Alexandria."