Thursday,23 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)
Thursday,23 November, 2017
Issue 1291, (14 - 20 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Perception and reality on tourism

Political stability and creative promotion are required to help Egypt’s tourism industry recover from one of its hardest setbacks, Elhami Al-Zayyat, chair of the Egyptian Union of Chambers of Tourism tells Dina Ezzat

Economy
Economy
Al-Ahram Weekly

Elhami Al-Zayyat is one of the biggest names in the Egyptian tourism industry. He knows the corridors of the business inside out, and from both the private sector and the government points of view. He is not hesitant about saying, in no uncertain terms, that the recovery of the industry from its current setback is not just around the corner.

“It has been hard, and I fear that there is no immediate recovery coming our way soon,” Al-Zayyat told Al-Ahram Weekly in an interview this week.

In terms of figures, there are good reasons for worry. Egypt had around 15 million tourists in 2010. This number had declined to around nine million in 2015, and this year it could, at best, add up to five million.

“And it is not just that we have fewer tourists. We have fewer tourists who spend shorter visits and less money too,” Al-Zayyat added.

There are many reasons behind the ailing of an industry that has for many years provided the state with a considerable share of its foreign currency.

“The first problem is perception: you cannot underestimate the importance of perception in the tourism industry, which is one of the key zones where perception really is as important as reality,” he said. “When you buy your holiday, you are doing so before you actually get to have it, meaning that perceptions of it are all-important.”

Unfortunately, the world does not have a particularly positive perception of Egypt. “I am afraid to say that it is quite negative,” Al-Zayyat said.

As tourism first began to drop in the wake of the 25 January Revolution, Egypt was perceived as a country that was going through political changes that were associated with commotion in its big cities, he said.

“This meant that Cairo and Giza suffered a serious drop in the number of tourists, and it meant that some tourists who had wanted to come to Egypt to visit the Egyptian Museum and the Pyramids had to decide whether to go to Luxor or Sharm El-Sheikh instead or whether to wait for things to become more stable,” he said.

Throughout the years after the 25 January Revolution, Al-Zayyat said, Egypt went through one political crisis after another. “From the perception of the tourist, this simply meant that Egypt was not exactly a stable country. It meant that key tourism-exporting countries did not favour Egypt as a prime destination for their nationals.

“Of course, an incident like the killing of the Mexican tourists in the Western Desert last year, whoever was in the wrong about the turn of events, does not help the country to find a better place on world travel advisories either.”

But the worst of the harm that was done to the perception of Egypt as a dream tourist destination hit in October last year with the dramatic crash of a flight carrying Russian tourists home after a holiday by the Red Sea in Sharm El-Sheikh.

“For a long time, Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada kept tourism going on the Red Sea, and even though we had lost a considerable portion of our share of international tourism, we still kept something as a result. But the question marks that were brought to the attention of the world’s media over the safety of Egyptian airports in the Red Sea were detrimental to this,” he said.

Al-Zayyat said that he had hoped to see the matter “attended to promptly and effectively,” but instead things lingered to the point where the Russian travel authorities cancelled the resumption of tourism to Egypt this year.

“When such things happen they have an echo beyond just Russian tourists. This has especially been the case as a result of two successive blows that followed — the confused accounts of the [killing] of an Italian researcher in Egypt, with all the negative repercussions that have followed, and the hijacking of an EgyptAir flight by a disturbed man last month,” Al-Zayyat said.

“We have failed to fix this perception issue, particularly as it is harming a top foreign currency-earning industry.”

He continued, “We have tended to overlook the key issues and get too involved in secondary debates about the role of the minister or even the Ministry of Tourism. There is very little that the Ministry of Tourism can do if Egypt is always reported in the international media in a negative way.”

Worse still, he added, the overall regional situation is not helping, as a result of the conflict in Yemen and the situation in Libya and Syria.

“We need to stop avoiding the very obvious fact that we have a problem of perception, and we need to stop imagining that the problem will just go away with a bit of intensive promotion,” Al-Zayyat asserted. “We need to attend to the key problems and do so quickly. We need to act on what has to be done to stop the negative reporting of Egypt.

“We need to come up with some positive news, for example an important archeological discovery on which experts can comment in the international press and on which top journalists can report in the international media.

“While it is true that the situation is quite dim, there is some light here and there. We need to remind tourists of what they are missing by not coming to Egypt, and one way of doing this is to send exhibitions overseas. I know this is controversial, but this is not just about helping to bring in foreign currency. It is also about offering an antithesis to the negative perception of Egypt.

“At this particular moment of big question marks, you cannot count on traditional campaigning tools. You need to come up with alternative and creative promotional ideas. We need to see that there is no one prescription that can remedy all our problems. When we think of the drop that we have suffered in the European market, we have to think differently to when we think of our problems in the Russian market. When we think of Arab tourism, we need to remember that we are now competing with Dubai.”

Al-Zayyat says that a case-by-case promotional strategy is best, and insists that this cannot be left to the government. “Those in the industry need to come together and offer workable ideas to the government and then to follow up on them,” he said.

“It could take just two to three years before we pick up to where we were. And then we can start working on expanding our share of world tourism markets.”

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