It's all about the people
In an exclusive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Taleb Rifai, secretary-general of the World Tourism Organisation, speaks to Jailan Halawi
about his confidence in Egypt's ability to bounce back in its tourism industry, having been in the business for the past 6,000 years. And in another exclusive, Magdi Selim, undersecretary head of the domestic tourism sector at the Egyptian Tourism Authority, says Egypt's tourism will inevitably get past the challenging times it is going through once its people realise how much the industry means to the nation. The two officials addressed the second UNWTO International Conference on Tourism and the Medi held recently in Marsa Allam
Taleb Rifai, elected secretary-general of the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) in 2009, has an extensive background in international and national public service, the private sector and academia. Before joining the UNWTO Rifai was assistant director general of the International Labour Organisation and served in several ministerial portfolios in Jordan: minister of planning and international cooperation, minister of information and minister of tourism and antiquity. Born in Cairo of Jordanian origin, Rifai has a profound passion for Egypt and its people
In your address to the conference you said Egypt has always been capable of bouncing back from various crises. What do you think is the driving force behind that?
First of all and most importantly, it is the people of Egypt. They've always been able to be at their best when they are challenged. They shine when they are challenged. Whether it is economically, politically, socially and definitely with tourism, it is not different. And in the past whenever tourism had any setback, the Egyptians were able to bounce back very quickly and very impressively. So we do not see this (challenge) as being different at all because it is the people of Egypt who know how to do this, not anybody else. That is the most important element. The second important element is that what Egypt cannot be kept away from the rest of the world. You have tremendous assets. You've been a tourism destination for the last 6,000 years. This is not going to go away because of a certain juncture in Egyptian history. So, all of this makes me believe that the future is going to be bright.
What is the message that you wish to convey to the world through hosting this important conference in Marsa Alam?
What we are trying to say is very simple: every visitor to Egypt, every tourist to Egypt is a supporter of democracy and freedom in the new Egypt.
And how is that?
By supporting the economy of Egypt, by keeping the people working, by keeping people in their jobs, by making people more comfortable about doing what they need to do in the new changing situation. There is so much that needs to be done to rebuild the country. Egyptians need to be secure economically while doing this. There is nothing better than the tourism sector to give them financial, social and economic security. That is why we say the more you travel to Egypt the more you are helping the Egyptian people to accomplish what needs to be accomplished.
What do you think is the most common misconception about Egyptian tourism?
I don't think there are misconceptions. I differ with people who see Egypt that way. I think the world knows exactly what is going on in Egypt and I think they have great respect for Egypt. I don't see that there is a problem there. I think Egyptians would like to see it happen better and faster but I don't believe that there are any serious misconceptions about Egypt. The new revolution in Egypt has earned Egyptians a lot of respect around the world and that respect is still going around.
What are the major challenges that tourism in Egypt faces whether in terms of the people or the government moving on with the industry?
As a government you need to believe in tourism more and take it seriously. I don't think you should allow any ideology or way of thinking to look at tourism in any way that questions its ability to do good to the country and to the people. In short, there must be a political will to support tourism so that tourism can support Egypt in turn.
For the people, I would simply say, just continue to be the way you are, be yourselves. Egyptians are wonderful in the way they receive visitors, the way they welcome them. We need to work a little bit more on products, on promotion, on quality, on training, on capacity building. But, that is something that we will continue to need always and not something connected only to this challenging and difficult situation.
For someone who's travelled a lot, which parts of Egypt are your favourite destinations?
This is like asking me which one of your children is the most favourite to you. I think every spot in Egypt is beautiful and it has its own different character. The Red Sea, the Mediterranean, the Delta, Alexandria and Cairo are beautiful places to be, as is Luxor and Aswan, and even the desert. I think every part of Egypt has its own strength and character, and I love them all.
As a frequent visitor to Egypt, has your sense of security lessened a bit in light of the recent events?
Never, ever. Even at the height of the crisis -- and I did come in the middle of demonstrations in Tahrir Square and I was there with everybody else -- I never felt safer.