Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 February 2009
Issue No. 933
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mega merge

In Hurghada, Salonaz Sami witnesses the coming together of Thomas Cook and Jet Tours

I have always had a soft spot for Hurghada. Despite having visited just a few times, the city is an example of the kind of resort that has everything. Its veritable underwater paradise holds a special place in many divers' hearts, with its warm waters hosting a variety of rare fish and amazing coral reefs. But it wasn't just the clear waters and spectacular corals that attracted Europe's second largest travel firm, Thomas Cook, to merge with the Paris-based, premium tour operator Jet Tours, using Hurghada as the backdrop for the deal. Anne Bourferguene, Thomas Cook's managing director of tour operating and marketing, said that since her company had planned to release a booklet about Egypt to attract more tourists, "we had sought Hurghada, which we believe is the perfect spot that provides cultural and recreational attractions, specifically water sports, of which the French clientele is highly interested."

Lately, Hurghada has been on top of the list of places sought by French tourists visiting Egypt, and Thomas Cook's resident manager Wim De Vries says there is more that attracts the French than just the warm year round weather of the resort. "There is the unmatched Egyptian hospitality and considering that over 70 per cent of our clients target Hurghada, our choice for the conference's venue was perfect," Vries said.

Thomas Cook, one of the world's leading leisure travel groups with sales of around 9 billion, serves 21.2 million customers, has 28,000 employees, a fleet of 93 aircraft and a network of over 3.150 owned and franchised travel stores, hotels and resort properties. It decided to buy French operator Jet Tours from Club Mediterranee for 70 million euros.

The combination of Jet Tours and Thomas Cook is expected to form France's third largest tour operator company with a joint market share of about 10 per cent. "We aim at utilising the powers and success of both companies to achieve the best results," De Vries said.

Each year, an estimated 300,000 holidaymakers travel with Jet Tours. Founded in 1968, Jet Tours positions itself as a top range tour operator with 80 per cent of the hotels it runs operating under four stars or more.

Thomas Cook also announced the buying of TriWest Travel Holdings, a travel wholesaler in Canada, for 114 million Canadian dollars. "Both deals are in line with our strategy of becoming a leading and independent travel provider," said Bourferguene.

"Thomas Cook is one of the leading travel providers," Ahmed Galal, Bright Sky Travel's tour operator groups and VIP Department, and events organiser, says. "The size of Thomas Cook's operations in the region is huge. It is the first in the tourism industry in terms of the quality of service it provides," he said.

The French, he added, are famous for sticking to their travel plans regardless of how tight their budget might be. "They might look for alternatives but will never drop the whole idea."

And while people might wait longer to book their holiday, "we make sure to provide them with packages tailored to their budget and needs. That's how we manage to keep our clients. We simply stay aware of their changing needs," De Vries said.

Following the signing ceremony, it was impossible to end the event without paying a visit to Hurghada's landmark, the Giftun Island National Park Protectorate. Paradise is how its visitors like to describe Giftun, the most famous of Hurghada's 36 islands, 22 of which are declared national protectorates. Giftun is a one-hour boat ride from the Hurghada shore.

I was lucky enough to accompany Thomas Cook executives on their day trip to Mahmya, or protected area, one of only two buildings on Giftun Island.

Mahmya is the perfect example of how an ecosystem can be managed and enjoyed by mankind. The rest of the island, and like all marine park islands in Egypt, is untouched and uninhabited. To get to the island, visitors board one of the 27-seater Mahmya boats and sail towards the big palm tree that distinguishes the Mahmya.

The boats moor just off the unspoiled bay and visitors are then shuttled to shore by smaller modest boats. Once you set foot on the island, you can't help but feel you have crossed the Red Sea to a tropical sand island on the Caribbean.

From then on, visitors are free to snorkel among some of the most amazing corals in the world, take a walk along the fine powdery white sand beach, or just relax in the warm sun. And don't worry if you don't have your snorkelling gear; it's available, free of charge, at the Aquarius centre. You can also go into action at the beach volley ground or try scuba diving at the in- house diving centre. And you have absolutely nothing to worry about in Mahmya since security and rescue guards are present round the clock. The island, which is completely enclosed by a beautiful garden of vibrant corals, is known as the "jewel in Hurghada's diving crown" since more than 40 per cent of Hurghada's dive sites are located off its shores, with almost 200 types of soft and hard corals and almost 800 marine species.

In 2004, on World Earth Day, hundreds of protesters gathered in Giftun to protest against a $2 billion Italian tourism development plan that they thought would destroy the protectorate's habitat. Demonstrators wore T-shirts that read "Save our Giftun" on the front, and "Not for sale" on the back. An online petition gathered more than 10,000 signatures, thus forcing the government to back down.

Just two weeks into the campaign, President Hosni Mubarak issued a decree announcing that no further development plans would be allowed on the island. He stressed that no tourism projects should take place on any of the major islands and protectorates in the Red Sea unless comprehensive environmental studies are conducted assuring total safety of the properties.

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