Egypt is pinning high hopes on this year lifting the country’s ailing tourism sector, which has been struggling since the 25 January Revolution in 2011.
Minister of Tourism Yehia Rashed said at the end of last year that 2017 could be the “year of the rebirth of the tourism industry”.
The sector, which has been suffering since the revolution, received its biggest blow in late 2015 when a Russian passenger airliner crashed over Sinai, killing all 224 people on board.
Since then Russia, the UK and several other countries have halted flights to the popular Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, making 2016 the worst ever year for the industry.
Only three million tourists visited Egypt in the first six months of 2016, dropping by 50 per cent compared to the same period last year, with the country netting just $500 million in tourism revenues in the first quarter of 2016.
A total of 5.3 million tourists came to Egypt in 2016, down 40 per cent compared to the previous year, Rashed said.
The number of tourists visiting the country is now slowly growing, with some countries resuming air travel, such as Germany and Belgium, and raising hopes for the imminent resumption of flights from Russia and the UK.
These two countries send the majority of foreign tourists to Egypt.
Ahmed Al-Gabri, the owner of a shop in Sharm El-Sheikh’s Neama Bay, said that the situation was still difficult in the Red Sea town, although there had been a slight improvement over the last couple of weeks because of the Christmas holidays.
“Unless flights from Russia and the UK are restored, the situation will continue to be bad,” Al-Gabri told Al-Ahram Weekly.
He said that although Germany and Belgium had lifted their flight bans, the numbers of tourists coming from these countries were small compared to Russia and the UK, which account for 75 per cent and 20 per cent of tourists coming to Sharm El-Sheikh, respectively.
He said he believed flights would resume in the first three months of 2017, after which tourism could rebound.
The Colliers MENA Hotel Forecast shows that occupancy rates in Egypt’s tourist resorts of Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada have remained weak, standing at 26 and 29 per cent, respectively, in a three-month forecast from December 2016 to February 2017. Colliers is a global leader in commercial real estate services.
Egypt has been implementing tighter security measures at airports since the Russian plane crash, and the authorities have repeatedly said that everything possible has been done to ensure security and safety at Egyptian airports.
Several Russian delegations have visited Egypt to inspect the security measures, with experts giving positive assessments of the equipment and security measures taken at the country’s airports. However, flights have not been resumed, and different deadlines have been given for their resumption.
It is unclear how many checks it will take to resume the flights between the two countries, but they once again agreed to exchange visits this month.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in late December that Russian flights between Moscow and Cairo would resume soon, the Egyptian presidency said in a statement.
Vacationers who went to Sharm El-Sheikh during the Christmas holidays told the Weekly that security measures at Sharm El-Sheikh Airport had been tightened significantly.
They said they were thoroughly searched by highly trained personnel from the National Falcon Company for Airport Security, which is now responsible for security screening at Sharm El-Sheikh Airport.
Falcon signed an agreement in June last year with British company Restrata for Consulting and Training to develop the skills of 7,000 Egyptian Falcon Group personnel in airport security procedures.
In November, The United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) and the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) called on the UK government to lift the ban on UK flights to Sharm El-Sheikh.
In a letter to British Prime Minister Theresa May, the two organisations stressed the importance of resuming flights to the Egyptian coastal resort, saying that the ban was having devastating effects on Egypt’s economy and social stability.
The letter added that the Egyptian authorities had taken significant measures to step up the level of security at airports and surrounding areas.
Though the UK has recently reinstated direct flights to Luxor, there is little indication yet as to whether direct British flights will resume to Sharm El-Sheikh.
The UK’s and Russia’s ban on flights are related to political issues rather than security, said Ahmed Balbaa, head of the tourism committee at the Egyptian Businessmen Association (EBA).
He said that the bans had been in place for more than a year, indicating that they were politically motivated. Balbaa said that should the bans be lifted, the sector would be poised for a rebound. But there were other problems in the sector that needed to be addressed in order for it to take off, he said.
Balbaa said that the government needed to help finance the refurbishment and renovation of hotels after years of deterioration and also help improve other tourist-related services, such as transportation and training.
In Colliers MENA Hotel Report, Egypt lost one position on the Guest Experience Index (GEI) that indicates hotel guests’ general perception of a property’s quality in the MENA region. It ranked fifth in 2016, down from the fourth in 2015. The top two countries on the Index were Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Balbaa said that the Central Bank of Egypt had announced a LE5 billion fund for hotel refurbishment, an initiative that he described as “good”.
He also stressed the importance of setting minimums for hotel prices, depending on the category of hotel, in order to preserve the quality of services and the industry overall. “There should be no such thing as a five-star hotel offering a room for $20 per night,” Balbaa told the Weekly.
Hotels in Egypt have been making promotional offers at low prices in a bid to attract visitors after instability after the Revolution scared off tourists.
Balbaa added that the country had a problem in marketing and reaching out to new markets, saying that the sector would not rebound if these problems persisted. “It’s not only about the travel bans. We also need to address these issues,” he said.
The J Walter Thompson Company (JWT) will launch a promotional Egypt tourism campaign in Russia one week after the flights resume, according to press reports. The company won a $68 million three-year contract to market Egypt abroad, but suspended its campaign after Russia suspended flights to Egypt in late 2015.
There is another reason for tourism to rebound in 2017, which is the US financial company Bloomberg’s list of 20 destinations to visit this year.
Bloomberg listed Egypt as among 20 destinations to visit in 2017, saying the country was now ready to receive tourists after overcoming years of political turmoil. “In addition to heightened safety, many brand-name hospitality firms have started recommitting to Egypt,” it said.
It ranked the Giza Pyramids at the top of its list of sites to visit in Egypt and pointed to the opening of the tombs of Queen Nefertari and the Pharaoh Seti I after years of restoration, adding to the rich array of attractions Egypt had to offer.
“Travelers will find the country offers a more rewarding experience than ever before,” Geoffrey Kent, founder of luxury tour operator Abercrombie & Kent, was cited as saying.
Egypt’s tourism sector is one of the country’s main foreign-currency earners. More than 14.7 million tourists visited Egypt in 2010, dropping to 9.8 million in 2011 after the revolution took place.