Of tourism and aspiration
At Port Ghaleb, Ahmad Mahmoud wonders about the future of tourism
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a panel of different media personnel and tourism experts discussing methods of better cooperation
Since the Egyptian revolution 15 months ago, tourism has been struggling for survival. With news of strikes, clashes and the occasional abduction of tourists in Sinai, tour operators have cancelled significant portions of their business across Egypt. Now the Minister of Tourism, Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour, is trying to reverse the tide; and tremendous efforts are being made to tell the world that Egypt welcomes visitors and its people are the ones who guarantee their safety. Among the main challenges facing the tourism sector is the media, domestic and international, and how to reach a formula for the optimum understanding between the media and travel sectors. To this end the second UNWTO International Conference on Tourism and the Media, entitled "Partering with the Media in challenging Times", was held in the spectacular Port Ghaleb resort in Marsa Alam. The aim of the two-day conference (26-27 April) was to promote tourism as a driver of economic growth, inclusive of development and environmental sustainability, offering leadership and support in advancing knowledge and tourism policies worldwide.
Speaking to a huge audience in the conference's opening session, Egypt's minister of tourism said the government is adopting a new slogan for tourism, "I Am Egypt", aiming to highlight the role of the average citizen in promoting tourism. Egypt, he said, is trying to preserve natural resources, recycle refuse, train workers in the tourism business and improve the marketing of destinations. And, while Egypt's touristic attractions are not yet fully explored, Abdel Nour feels the country has everything going for it: the weather, the endless beaches, the unexplored desert as well as great potential for Nile cruises. Tourism is not just a matter of finance, development, and promotion. As the minister pointed out, there should also be a more equitable distribution of wealth in the Sinai and Upper Egypt. The locals may be allowed to own shares in tourist companies. If they are hired by the tourism sector, they will feel the immediate benefits of this activity.
Egypt seeks to encourage British tour operators to resume their activities in Egypt to their former level. The government is also eager to attract Chinese tourists. "The number of Chinese tourists worldwide has increased from 70 million last year to 84 million this year," he noted. Other target markets include tourists from Latin America, especially Brazil. But the number of tourists from Italy and Finland is returning to previous levels. "We have an awareness campaign targeting Egyptian citizens, to tell them how to deal with tourists and to point out how important tourism is for the country," Abdel Nour said. It cannot be hard to persuade Egyptians of the importance of tourism. With one out of seven families depending fully or partially on income from tourism, the value of tourism is not lost on the average Egyptian. Indeed, during the 25 January revolution, some protestors carried signs telling tourists to stay in the country and have no fear.
The government is currently making sure that local communities will become active stakeholders in the tourism business: "We have a pilot project in Dahshour to encourage traditional industries. It is a private sector project that aims to improve local skills, increase income, and maintain the fabric of the local community" In Sinai, where instances of instability have surfaced repeatedly over the past year, efforts are being made to engage the locals. "We have made great efforts to integrate the locals into tourism. We are asking them to protect the hotels and tourist resorts and training them to work in tourism," he said. Abdel Nour seemed hopeful that the transitional phase will end soon, so that tourism may return to former levels. "Egypt's chances to grow after the revolution are tremendous. And yet Egypt is going through a difficult transitional phase. On-going changes can lead to considerable losses, whose magnitude will be smaller the shorter the transition."
Still, Egypt's success in tourism depends on political and moral issues, such as democracy and human rights: "We need support. We need success. We need to emerge out of the crisis. Getting out of the crisis will allow us to maintain the ideals of democracy and human rights." The minister blamed the local media for failing to cover tourism-related topics in "a satisfactory manner". He said, "We need a tourism media that is professional. What we ask of the media is to relay faithfully what it sees in reality. I personally have a strong need to learn about the negative aspects and I ask the media to cover them. But I also hope the media will cover the positive too."
Taleb Al-Rifai, the secretary general of the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO), said that Egypt's Ministry of Tourism is doing a lot to revive tourism in Egypt. "Tourism matters for Egypt; it contributes twice as much as the Suez Canal to Egypt's GDP, and it creates new jobs," Al-Rifai said. Tijani Haddad, the president of the International Federation of Journalists and Travel Writers, said that western media coverage depicts events in the region as if they were natural disasters. He added that the media should be more accurate in its reporting, so as not to undermine tourism in countries that rely on this sector. Mark Leftly, associate business editor of the newspaper The Independent, said the total figure of tourists in 2012 was one billion, and that one out of 12 jobs worldwide is related to tourism.
For her part Layla Revis, vice president of Digital Strategy, says countries should build up brand names and offer appropriate travel guides to visitors; they should improve the skills of workers in the tourism business and enhance the awareness of the citizens. Tourists will visit countries with a reputation for transparency and consumer-oriented service. Likewise Ben Wedeman, the CNN Cairo bureau chief: he felt that tourism coverage is expensive in general and that journalists will be more eager to cover tourism if governments pitched in with their travelling and accommodation costs. Subsidising journalists' travel costs, he suggested, is far cheaper than mounting media campaigns. Zully Salazar Fuentes, vice president for tourism in Proexport, a Colombian company, says that armed conflicts wrecked Colombian tourism initially, but the government managed to improve the situation through transparency. By explaining which areas are dangerous and which are not, it became possible for tourists to choose their destinations with few or no security worries.