Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 May 2012
Issue No. 1096
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

'Only when people see beauty will they reflect beauty'

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

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Magdi Selim, undersecretary head of the domestic tourism sector at the Egyptian Tourism Authority (ETA), joined the ETA in 1984 in the Public Tourist Relation Department. In his long years with ETA including a five-year post in Canada and three in India, Selim became an expert in the tourism sector and gained vast experience in dealing with the media, marketing, tourist counseling and international tourism. He is also an avid researcher who has conducted extensive studies on the tourism sector in Egypt. An added bonus is the crisis management course Selim obtained from the National Institute of Planning that best serves the challenges his sector is currently facing

As an expert in the field, what are the advantages of such conferences for the tourism industry?

I believe the importance of such conferences is that they provide ample opportunity for both sides, the tourism sector and the media, to establish direct and transparent contact where both parties interact as partners whose main objective is the well-being of the people. All the people.

Reaching the people is the target of the tourism sector and the media equally and it is the media that helps convey a genuine picture of the tourism industry in any nation.

It is such conferences that allow the media to better understand and see for itself the amount of effort exerted by each country to get its fair share of the international tourism market. It is the fair coverage of the media that helps tourists and visitors make the right choices based on true stories that reflect the heritage and nature of each nation. We all have our well trusted medium that undeniably affects many of our decisions especially when it comes to which parts of the world to visit.

Whose decision was it to hold such an important conference in Marsa Alam?

Marsa Alam is one of the most beautiful, tranquil, flourishing Red Sea resorts, famous for its virgin land and underwater wonders. With a host of tourism projects planned for the near future, Marsa Alam is expected to top the list of Egypt's magnificent destinations for those in search of sea or desert adventures with a history full of enigmatic legends to unveil.

The idea first stemmed two months ago when the UNWTO together with the ETA agreed on holding the conference there, for all the logistics were appropriate. Marsa Alam with its peaceful nature and spectacular sites provides the present media people with the best impressions ever. Nothing compares to first hand experiences and first impressions. They last a lifetime.

What were the major challenges you faced in organising the conference?

How to arrange the flights schedule to suit delegates coming from different parts of the world to reach Marsa Alam at the same time, since the number of those participating surpassed the capacity of the domestic carrier and the number of flights from Cairo to Marsa Alam per week.

EgyptAir has four flights a week; that was no problem. But we asked for a bigger carrier that takes more than their usual 76 passenger and they complied.

Other passengers whose international flights or business schedule did not suit the direct Cairo-Marsa Alam flight, flew to Hurghada which has more frequent flights, and from there we provided buses to Port Ghalib resort in Marsa Alam where the two-day conference was held.

I hereby would like to pay due respect and appreciation of the receptiveness and collaboration of the various authorities of the Red Sea governorate and the tremendous effort each and all exerted to see this conference succeed.

All flights and road trips were made during late night hours, reflecting how safe our land is.

You saw during our Bedouin dinner that took one kilometre of off-road driving in the heart of the desert to reach the fustat Bedouin village, that our trip was as safe as it could ever be. As I said, it is this direct interaction that reflects to the whole world the sense of what it is to venture into any spot of Egyptian territory.

How does the Ministry of Tourism and the tourism authority benefit best from such a major event taking place in the country?

We scrutinise carefully all the comments made by all delegates and utilitse it to its best. We further conduct surveys and listen carefully to FAM trips, travel writers and those who wish to visit Egypt. Besides, we have our own development plan and we equally consider suggestions and complaints made by travellers and the media. All this data is fully analysed and plans are put accordingly.

We also organise orientation trips to the media for they are our best ambassadors to their people and more credible than an advertisement.

And how is the relationship of the ministry with the domestic press?

For the past decades, journalism witnessed a downfall in the calibre of its reporters as some of the publications hired unqualified people easily led into catering to the state's needs than in doing a fair job. Such corrupt, unqualified reporters are the ones who publish misleading information. I believe now it is both sides role to pick up where they left off.

In covering our events, we only choose top quality writers and it is the role of the media to be sensible about the picture they spread to the world. We need to establish this harmony between the media and the tourism sector in order to work together on increasing the flow of a fair share of tourists to Egypt.

Having said that, do you believe the travel authority is doing what it needs to do to meet all the challenges facing the sector?

While there are many honest men working in the sector relentlessly for the welfare of the industry and consequently the nation, I believe the sector needs a total revamp of its cadres. The ministry should hire only those highly trained and knowledgeable of how to best deal with travellers and how to handle such an important sector.

We conduct many surveys and partner with different countries in twin developmental projects, yet our gains are not the maximum. Unfortunately, we do not benefit from these experiences as a sector, although there are individuals who take such outings seriously and work accordingly.

Why is that?

The employees do not have the right motive or drive that teaches them the real meaning of a sector whose only concern is the tourism industry. We need to realise that there is a lot of national duty in the tourism industry and that its flourishing reflects immediately on the well-being of each and everyone. When we comprehend the importance of such a sector, we will establish loyalty for the profession and loyalty to working in the sector, not only for the government but for the welfare of our children and grandchildren. Once we've grasped this, we would inevitably exert all efforts to leave such a sector at its best for the coming generations.

We need to cultivate this concept in the minds and hearts of all those working in the tourism industry both practically and theoretically. We need to show and teach our employees about the beauty and worth of what they are doing in order to establish enough loyalty. That would be the best drive for the maximum.

I am currently embarking on a LE5 million project aimed at raising awareness and loyalty among Egyptians by explaining how important the travel industry is to the lives of us all. But, in order for this plan to work, there has to be a parallel social upheaval to lift the suffering of the average Egyptian. Only when people see beauty will they reflect beauty.

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