Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

What to do about tourism?

The country’s tour guides are calling for action after the consecutive blows that hit the tourism industry, reports Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

For Wael, there was no worse news that he could have heard than the announcement made last Friday evening that Italy has recalled its ambassador to Egypt for consultations. The step was taken amid growing Italian-Egyptian tensions over the killing of an Italian researcher in Cairo earlier this year.

“I can’t believe this is happening. I can’t believe the government is letting this happen. We are doomed,” Wael lamented.

For over 25 years, Wael has worked as a tour guide, initially with French groups and then later with Italian groups, after having worked on his Italian.

For the best part of these years, this guide, now in his early fifties, never regretted turning his back on a career of academia in favour of a career in the tourism sector.

It had been, as he recalled, a rewarding choice, both professionally and financially, and was actually so successful that friends and colleagues followed Wael into, as he said, “what we thought was the one thing that could not go wrong in Egypt — tourism.”

Over the past five years, however, Wael has felt as if he was losing his dream job, a job that has given him the chance to see the world, as it has come to Egypt, and to make enough money to support his family. His children have gone to international schools, and he lives in a gated community.

Following the 25 January Revolution, Wael, like other tour guides, hoped that the political upheavals would only mean a short-term drop in the number of tourists coming to Egypt. “I thought we might lose a season or two at worst, and that it would be just a matter of months before things picked up,” he recalled.

At moments, this seemed to be happening. “We thought that with renewed political stability things would settle down. But every time we thought that political stability had come our way, we soon realised we were mistaken,” he said.

In June 2012, Wael was disappointed by the election of Mohamed Morsi as president because he did not want to see a Muslim Brotherhood candidate making it to the top executive job in Egypt. He added, however, “From a pragmatic point of view I thought we now at least had a president and things would pick up.”

In June 2014, Wael was “overwhelmed with joy” to see Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi become president.

“I thought that now the nightmare was over. I told my wife that it would be a year or two at the most before we could resume the holiday plans that were interrupted in 2011, and I told my eldest son that I would be able to keep my promise to send him to study in the US,” he recalled with sadness.

For guides working with French and Italian groups, things were not so bad because they kept on coming, though at a much lower rate, for desert and Red Sea tourism. “So we were holding out, even though we had to cut down on a few things as we were using our savings to pay for school fees and some other things,” Wael said.

A few days ago, however, Wael took his family out for dinner to break the news that things are not going well. Unless some breakthrough happens, his wife will have to find a job, at a particularly challenging moment in the job market, and his children will have to go to state schools next year.

“I will never forget the sad face of my eldest son. The younger ones were alright, but it is the eldest who killed me with the look in his eyes,” Wael said.

He accepts that there are things that are out of the government’s hands, but he also feels that mistakes the government has made are harming everyone — the industry, state coffers, guides and many others who are suffering from the drop in tourism rates to Egypt.

The first thing the government should have done, according to Wael, is to have prioritised the recovery of the tourism industry right after the inauguration of Al-Sisi as president two years ago.

“But it didn’t, because it had this idea, which we had too by the way, that things would work themselves out by themselves and just pick up. But a year later it was clear that tourism was not really picking up and that something had to be done,” he said.

The second thing, Wael said, should have been to make sure that there was no risk of an accelerated drop in the already low rates.

“Someone is responsible for the catastrophic mistake made with the Mexican tourists who were bombarded in the Western Desert and for the account given of the Russian plane disaster, and now for the disaster of the Italian researcher,” Wael said.

Instead, he said, the focus was “misplaced.” The minister of tourism could have done more, or could not have done more. In any case he was not the key issue, Wael said.

Tarek is an English-speaking tour guide who has been in the business for over 25 years. The key issue, for him, was the “negative promotion” of Egypt.

“Egypt has always been a dream destination. People save all their working lives to be able to come for a week or ten days and have their pictures taken by the Pyramids. We are almost a self-promoting travel destination. However, we work against ourselves,” he said.

Tarek agreed with Wael that the “extremely unfortunate series of incidents” that had compromised the safety of foreigners in Egypt over the past 12 months should have been avoided.

He also agreed that the fact that bad things kept happening has not allowed the image of Egypt to recover. “And that goes for the region at large as well,” he said.

“We had problems with the Gulf War, the assault on tourists at the Temple of Hatshepsut in 1997, and then the attack on Sharm El-Sheikh a few years later. But we always managed to recover because these were one-off incidents,” he said.

Tarek added that what had helped Egypt to recover then were the efforts of the government to compensate for negative promotion with positive promotion: attractive offers were made, positive local news was projected, and extra effort was made to attend to the services offered to the tourists from the moment their planes landed.

Today, these services can be unreliable, Tarek said. “It is not helpful if tourists arrive at the airport and start being nagged by taxi drivers, or go to hotels to find a lack of cleanliness, due to hotel managers reducing expenses.”

He continued, “The positive promotion we desperately need to counter the negative promotion at work at the moment is to make sure that the tourists who come to Egypt go back with beautiful memories and pleasant experiences. This may not be enough to overcome all our problems, but it would certainly help.”

However, the key point, according to Atef, a guide who has been working for the past 20 years with Russian and Eastern European tourists, is “to act now without hesitation or haggling to show the world that we recognise our problems and that we are ready to take responsibility to fix them rather than just deny them.”

Said Atef, “When we fail to take responsibility for something as essential as a breach in security at airports, even if it is extremely unfair to use one incident to suggest that Egyptian airports are not safe in general, we are simply encouraging the misgivings of states who fear for the safety of their citizens.”

This is particularly the case, he said, with countries that send large groups. According to Atef, the appeal of Egypt for Russian tourists was endless. “I know some who have gone to neighbouring countries so that they could come to spend their holidays in Egypt as their government is making it difficult for them to come to Egypt directly,” he said.

Atef said it is not likely that the market will regain its momentum all at once. “I think we need to prioritise. We need to decide which markets are more likely to recover faster and then start to work on those first,” he said.

Wael is convinced that the European market is lost for some time to come. “The Regini case, the ban on British flights, and the discouraging travel advisories putting limitations on where European tourists can go” have all been damaging.

Both Tarek and Atef are convinced that tourists coming from Russia and the US have a lot of potential, but it will take hard work on three parallel tracks to attract them, these being better security, better services and more positive promotion.

For Nadia, a tour guide who has been working with German-speaking groups for 20 years, the government needs to stop putting its head in the sand on the matter.

It must stop denying that Egypt has a negative image as a result of poorly explained internal political decisions or poorly managed crises, and it must consider the negative repercussions on those working in the tourism industry, including taxi drivers, waiters at cafés and restaurants, housekeeping teams at hotels, and of course tour guides.

Nadia is finding it difficult to accept the fact that the Tour Guides Syndicate is lagging behind in reacting to “the real financial ordeal we are suffering. Everyone is suffering immensely, and people who have been living off their savings for the best part of the last five years are falling into crisis. But we have no support from the government or anyone else,” she complained.

With no experience in any other field, Nadia has failed several times “when things were proving to be really difficult for me” to find another job. “I am always told that I am too old and have no relevant experience in anything outside tourism. What am I supposed to do? I have no idea when this nightmare will end.”

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