As Egyptians awaited official results of their first democratic presidential elections last week, the country’s tourism industry was holding its breath.
While many travel businesses were hoping the election and resulting stability would mark the turning point they desperately need to reignite tourism recovery efforts, they also worried that either the results themselves or a military power grab on the eve of the elections might prove to have a negative impact on the trade.
Earlier this month, Egyptians headed to the polls to cast their ballots in a runoff election between Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi and former prime minister Ahmed Shafik.
As of late last week, the Muslim Brotherhood had declared victory, but amid allegations of voter fraud, Egyptian officials had postponed an official announcement of results.
The issue for Egypt’s travel industry, which is among the country’s top revenue generators, is that the outcome of the election could determine whether the nation will remain a secular society that welcomes Western tourists and accommodates their lifestyles or will gravitate toward a theocracy governed by Islamic Sharia law.
The latter, they fear, could mean less tolerance toward non-Islamic visitors, which in turn would further damage an already hemorrhaging industry.
“There are a lot of questions if the candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood becomes president,” said Ashish Sanghrajka, president of Big Five Tours and Expeditions. “But the fact that the vote is split so evenly ... does mitigate what happens with the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Sanghrajka was alluding to the Brotherhood’s claim of victory by a relatively slim margin: 52% for Morsi and 48% for Shafik. ‘I don’t think it’s going to get ugly’
Farah Abou Seif, 20, a student at the American University of Cairo and daughter of Big Five’s manager in Egypt, Gamal Abou Seif, said that although she voted for Shafik, she was optimistic that whoever takes the reins of government will have to keep in mind that half of the population voted for his opponent.
“I don’t think it’s going to get ugly,” Farah Abou Seif said on a call from Cairo. “We’ve been calling for democracy. ... We’ve kind of learned what it means to peacefully protest. It’s not like before when everything was so chaotic.”
As she spoke last week, former President Hosni Mubarak lay seriously ill, reportedly near death, in an Egyptian prison, a reminder, she said, to whomever becomes president that Egyptians are no longer likely to tolerate tyranny of any kind.
“Taking into consideration what’s happened in the past with the old regime, the new president will make sure not to get on people’s bad side,” she predicted.
Moreover, days before the voting began, Egypt’s military asserted rights and authority that many interpreted as a bloodless coup. The move raised serious questions about how, when and to what extent Egypt’s military will transfer power to the new president.
And, since the military is believed to be sympathetic to maintaining Egypt’s secular traditions, it is not clear to what extent a Muslim Brotherhood victory might change official attitudes toward Westerners and thus the country’s tourism industry.
Mohammed Fayed of Guardian Travel, an Egypt specialist based in Virginia, said, “It’s confusing for everyone on the ground there. But still, there is hope. Whoever wins, let’s go ahead and move on with our lives.”
Fayed is hopeful that whatever protests take place throughout the political transition period will be more peaceful than the deadly clashes in early 2011 that led to Mubarak’s ouster. ‘Something new for everyone’
If Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, becomes the next president of Egypt, “it’s something new for everyone,” Fayed said. “We don’t know. Tourism-wise, yes, it might have a small effect.”
Fayed was alluding to suggestions by other Muslim Brotherhood candidates during the campaign that a Morsi-led government might take a more conservative approach to tourism: for example, requesting visitors to refrain from wearing revealing beachwear.
However, Fayed also noted that the U.S. source market is much more focused on Egypt’s cultural and historical heritage than on fun-and-sun vacations on the Red Sea. Thus, leaving bikinis at home because the Muslim Brotherhood is in power might not have a huge impact on attitudes toward Egypt here in the States, he said.
Despite the lingering political uncertainty in Egypt, operators are reporting a slight rebound in travel to Egypt compared with 2011. Fayed said his business is up 200% over last year, though in the same breath he noted that in June, Guardian Travel only had 10 clients in Egypt.
Mohamed Hegazy, the Egypt Tourist Authority’s tourism attache for the U.S. and Latin America, said Egypt welcomed 67% more international travelers in February and March than it had in the same two months in 2011.
Hegazy predicted that regardless of which candidate wins, either “will take care of tourism,” because both understand that Egypt’s tourism industry is “one of the most important sources for the national income. Both of them will work on the tourism marketing.”
When that marketing will go full steam ahead again, and what it will look like, Hegazy could not say, but he noted that the Egypt Tourist Authority has never stopped promoting the destination throughout the prolonged, complicated transition of power.
“When they announce the president, and the parliament comes in — we’re not even waiting for the [U.S. State Department’s] travel warning to [be dropped] — at that point, we’re going to start marketing,” Sanghrajka said.
He added that until this past month, Big Five had already started to see a robust rebound in travel to Egypt.
He was hopeful that the rebound would continue once the dust settles on the presidential election and pieces of the political landscape fall into place.
The reason for his hope, Sanghrajka said, is that “all those people who have been protesting in Egypt, they’re going to get what they’ve been asking for: change.” Follow Michelle Baran on Twitter @mbtravelweekly.