Egypt: to be discovered
There are marvellous treasures still waiting to be discovered in the land of the Pharaohs, minister of tourism Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour tells Jailan Halawi
You were appointed Egypt's minister of tourism at a difficult time. What are some of the main challenges?
The whole job of selling tourism is in itself challenging. It entails providing peace and security at a time when Egypt is living, at least so things are perceived, through a time of turmoil. The challenge has various angles. First of all, it is challenging to deal with the media, which is unfortunately looking for sensationalism. It wants to sell papers and to attract viewers. As a result, the media has been extremely detrimental for the image of Egypt because it has focused on negative news, disregarding the positive. Obviously, it is much more attractive to project a negative image than a positive one if you want to sell newspapers. This is one of my challenges. A second challenge is to try to change the perception of potential tourists, given the message in the press and the media. For this reason, I have traveled to France, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Russia to try to change perceptions.
How could the media be more cooperative?
It could focus on the positive. I am not asking anybody to lie. Yes, there have been problems in Tahrir Square, but the country is totally peaceful elsewhere, like in Sharm El-Sheikh, Marsa Alam, Hurghada, Luxor, Aswan, or Taba. In all these places, visitors can enjoy their stay without fear of disturbance. Why not focus on that? Tahrir Square is not Egypt, and Egypt is not only Tahrir Square.
What about people who would like to visit Cairo?
By all means come: you can come to Cairo without staying in Tahrir Square. You can go to the Pyramids, for example, Fatimid Cairo or the Khan El-Khalili Bazaar.
How can we change the current misperceptions about Egypt in the eyes of tourists?
We are doing everything we can -- advertising on the major international television channels, like CNN and Euronews, and targeting Arab tourists on the major Arabic channels. We have placed regional advertising in the major tourist- exporting countries, like Russia, Germany, England and Austria. We have focused our media campaigns not only on the international media but also on the regional media in these countries. We are doing promotional campaigns. To give you an example, we invited Thomas Cook, one of the major tour operators in this part of the world, to hold an international conference in Sharm El-Sheikh a month ago. We have also done the same thing with other tour operators and agents.
We have organised what we call "familiarisation trips" for journalists and media people around the world: up till now we've invited some 35 to 36 groups of media people from some 24 to 25 different countries to Egypt, including from China, India, Brazil, Spain, Portugal, France, Switzerland, Germany, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. We have been participating in all kinds of international events, such as fairs and trade shows, whether major or minor ones and either directly from Cairo and from the Egyptian Tourism Authority or through our offices around the world.
We have subsidised charter flights for tourists and encouraged tour operators to go ahead and organise charter flights as well, guaranteeing that they will not lose money as a result. I myself travel around the world as much as I can and as much as my timetable allows, in order to try to convince people that Egypt is a safe and secure destination where law and order prevail. Trying to change perceptions, as I say, is challenging, however.
What have been the results of these campaigns thus far?
I cannot forget about the present season. How can I forget about it when some four million Egyptian families live off tourism? Obviously, the figures show some improvement, even though we were 80 per cent down in February in comparison to last year. This difference is shrinking, though, and it has now dropped to 35 per cent. In the first three weeks of June, we were below 30 per cent at between 28 and 29 per cent.
I think we have a lot of potential that will bear fruit now. First of all, in front of us there is the summer season, and I am hopeful that the Arab tourists will come. As a matter of fact, in the first three weeks of June, the number of Arab tourists coming to Egypt was 20 per cent higher than last year. This is very important, and I am hopeful that we can convince them to come to Egypt to enjoy Ramadan, Alexandria and the North Coast. Arab tourism represents 21 per cent of tourist flow, which is quite substantial.
In September, we also have major events that I think will attract tourists, or at least will project a positive image of Egypt. First of all, we are holding a huge event in Aswan on 27 September, International Tourism Day, which will be held in parallel with the opening of the Old Cataract Hotel, now fully refurbished. We intend to do a big splash for this. I am expecting visits by the French and Italian ministers of tourism heading delegations of famous people. In October, we intend to open the Alley of Sphinxes. I think this is also news. Hopefully, by then we will be able to add good news to the tourism map of Egypt, so I don't want to talk about it now.
Regarding hopes for more Arab tourists in Alexandria and on the North Coast, is there a way these areas could be year-round attractions?
It is difficult to make them year-round attractions. The North Coast by definition is seasonal. If you look at Tunisia, for instance, it built its tourism industry around its North Coast, which has a seasonal type of tourism. It would be difficult for us to try to sell the North Coast in January, since it can get cold. Hotels on the North Coast work seven months a year, as opposed to the Red Sea, which attracts tourists all the year round.
What do you see as the main challenges in Sinai?
Sinai has problems, and there was bad planning at the beginning. There was a lot of investment in specific places, such as Sharm El-Sheikh, where you have a very large number of rooms that are offered to tourists, resulting in fierce competition and falling prices. What Sinai offers is unique in terms of beaches, sea and underwater riches. It is indeed a unique experience. We need to raise the level of service, in order to command higher prices. Currently, we are selling things much too cheaply. Unfortunately, Egypt is still perceived as being a cheap destination, and I think this is wrong. We are pricing things incorrectly, and this is a long-term challenge: how to change perceptions on the one hand and how to raise prices on the other. It is difficult to change the price of a service or a product once it has been established, so this is also a challenge, and I think we need to create a centre of excellence in Sinai. Marsa Allam could be one, and an increase in prices there could push up the price level of services across Sinai.
By the same token, I think we need to look at Nile cruises. The level of services on these needs to be increased. I think the whole concept of a Nile cruise should be changed: limiting the cruise to the stretch between Aswan and Luxor under-utilises the resources we have. The number of boats is also not fully utilised. The Nile itself flows for 800 kilometres between Aswan and Cairo, and it is not being used in the way that it might. We need to look at opening up the cruise market to Cairo, even if this is done in stages: one stage between Aswan and Luxor and Balyana and Abydos; a second stage to Sohag; a third to Minya; and a fourth to reach Cairo. I think the advantages of such an idea are obvious. One, you will use the idle capacity you have; two, it solves the problem of docking, which seems insoluble now, given the way everything is concentrated in Luxor or Aswan; three, the villages of Upper Egypt could be used to create a new tourist centre. I am thinking of Akhmim, in particular, and Sohag in general. When the tomb of Ramses II was discovered recently, it was clear that when this has been restored, it could be used to attract tourists. Minya can also be revived. It is stunning. You also have Tel al-Amarna and Beni Hassan, and so on. All stunning, but under-utilised.
You mean in terms of hotels and resorts?
Let us create the demand before we create the supply. Unfortunately, people have been discouraged from going to Minya for various reasons. That said, I think we have to develop a lot more tourist activities, like desert safaris, for instance, or eco-tourism, where we have a couple of successful examples in the Oases, one in Siwa and the other in Dakhla. The Oases, too, should be rediscovered.
Bearing in mind the nature of the places of course?
There are two constraints to tourist development. If you do not respect those two constraints, you are going to ruin your resources. You need to preserve the environment and conserve your historical heritage. If you do not do that, I think you are going to ruin the most valuable resources of this country. As I was saying in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, you may have oil, but we have our environment and our historical heritage. If we can preserve and conserve this, we have an "infinite heritage," whereas your oil is going to run out one day. Again, this is a long-term plan. We need to develop other activities, including religious tourism and health tourism, where Egypt can become a centre for rehabilitation.
If we put in the right infrastructure, Egypt could become a rehabilitation centre for the region. An agreement has been signed with a German party, for example, to create such a centre in Marsa Alam. I think this could become the cornerstone of a huge industry. Here, I am talking about eco-tourism, health tourism and safari tourism. A lot of people around the world are looking for adventure, and we have beautiful deserts that provide fantastic experiences that should be developed.
Is the vision of the ministry of tourism to project an image of Egypt that has more to offer than the Pyramids and Sharm El-Sheikh?
Unless you diversify your market and your activities, you will never be able to make it. And in order to diversify your market and get off the beaten path, knocking on the doors of new markets like China, Brazil and Vietnam, you need to get out and explore the world and live new experiences. These countries are becoming real economic powers that are radically increasing their per capita income. They are not only improving economically, but also all of them are highly populated. If we are able to attract even a small percentage of this population, or even a small percentage of the travelers within this population, we will see a boom in our tourism industry. We need to come off the beaten path.
What about local tourism?
Only some 17 per cent of Egyptians travel within Egypt. It's a very small percentage. However, we are trying to develop it. As you know, we've launched a three-nights, four-days trip at LE1,432 to be paid in installments and financed by the National Bank of Egypt. Interest is paid by the Egyptian Tourism Authority in order to encourage Egyptians to travel within Egypt. This plan is moving ahead. Obviously, it is not yet sufficient, and it is definitely not a permanent solution -- more like filling in the gaps. The Egyptian Tourism Industry has been built on receiving between 15-20 million tourists a year: there aren't 20 million Egyptian tourists.
Which part of Egypt is your favorite to spend a holiday?
It depends at what time of year. In January, I love Aswan. In May, I love Sharm El-Sheikh. In August, I love the North Coast. I have a spot for each month. Egypt is beautiful all the time. If you want to enjoy yourself, you will find beautiful spots to enjoy every week. The most beautiful trip on earth is a Nile cruise. I've taken a cruise between Cairo and Aswan. I've traveled a lot and been to many different countries. But the most beautiful trip one can ever make is a cruise on the Nile.
Do you have a message for Weekly readers about tourism in Egypt?
I would like to say that, despite what could be perceived as turmoil in Egypt due to political events, Egypt is safe and Egypt is secure. The proof is that since January 25 until today, not a single tourist has had an accident or been subject to an incident, and in the epicentre of the revolution in Tahrir Square there was a huge banner raised asking tourists not to leave: "do not leave, we will protect you." Egyptians really care about tourists and value their presence because they realise they are a source of revenue for the country and for them and their families.