As Egypt tourism recovers, other uprisings take hold in region

By Michelle Baran
The Khan el-Khalili Bazaar in CairoAs political uprisings spread rapidly across North Africa and the Middle East, from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya to Bahrain, the travel industry is faced with tackling a fast-moving, multifaceted perception battle.

One of the largest tourism destinations in the region -- and the one that has experienced the highest-profile uprising so far -- is Egypt, where operators are noting a slow but steady recovery in the tourism sector.

Positive indicators include the reopening of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and the easing of international travel restrictions, following weeks of sometimes deadly political protests that resulted in longtime President Hosni Mubarak finally agreeing to step down earlier this month.

That followed upheaval in Tunisia, where the situation appears to have relatively calmed. A Bahraini opposition movement is gaining momentum but is facing fierce resistance, and Lebanon is in the process of forming a new government after Saad Hariri was overthrown last month.

The hottest of the protests last week were in Libya, where strongman Moammar Gadhafi, who has ruled the country for 40 years, faced an escalating rebellion that grew more violent. Some estimates put the number of dead protesters there at more than 1,000.

"They are two very different cases," said Jerry Sorkin, founder and president of TunisUSA, which offers group and independent tours in both Tunisia and Libya. "In Tunisia, things are moving along in a very positive way. ... We have had some cancellations -- there's no question of that, particularly when it was a group -- but private clients and some of our groups are still going."

Sorkin added that ultimately Tunisia's revolution will prove a draw to tourists who want to see and understand the history that unfolded there, and that TunisUSA already has plans to incorporate guest lecturers to speak about the political changes.

"I think it's going to be an attraction," Sorkin said. "I think Tunisia's situation is similar to when the [Berlin] Wall fell."

In May, Libya lifted tourist visa restrictions for U.S. citizens after briefly opening its doors to American visitors in 2004 and 2005, and several tour operators and cruise lines jumped at the opportunity to offer the destination again. Less than a year later, the country is in turmoil.

"We had an escorted journey in Libya during the crisis and safely evacuated everybody out of Tripoli on [Feb.] 22," Jerre Fuqua, president of Travcoa, wrote in an email. He noted that Travcoa had returned to Libya in September but said the company has now "canceled our other scheduled Libya independent and escorted journeys until the situation is clear."

The challenge for operators is to determine how all these uprisings, all at different stages and levels of intensity, will affect the overall image of and accessibility to the region.

"Our clients are a little bit savvier," Sorkin said. "They don't necessarily draw the conclusion that what's happening in one country is necessarily happening in another." Yet he admitted that some clients have said things like, "My family just doesn't want me going to the region." He added that fortunately cancellations of that sort are "not big in numbers."

In addition to Tunisia and Libya, TunisUSA offers trips to India, Turkey, Iran and Malta.

Ashish Sanghrajka, president of Big Five Tours & Expeditions, noted that while there has been political upheaval in Jordan, for instance, the country's tourist board has done a good job getting the message out that the destination is safe for tourists.

"The people there do adore their king," Sanghrajka said, adding that that's a "big distinction between there and Libya."

He said tourism to Israel has not been negatively affected by the political unrest in neighboring countries.

Egypt update

Meanwhile, tourism to Egypt is trickling back. Abercrombie & Kent USA said last week that it expected to resume normal operations in Egypt on April 1, with the small-group escorted journeys Pharaohs & Pyramids (April 12 to 25) and Egypt Unveiled (April 14 to 24) to operate as scheduled.

"The situation on the ground has continued to improve, and we believe that the groundwork is being laid for a return to normal operations," Amr Badr, managing director for Abercrombie & Kent for Egypt and the Middle East, wrote in an update about the situation in Egypt last week.

Badr noted that all of Egypt's major tourist sites were open and functioning normally.

The Egyptian Tourist Authority issued an update on international travel warnings to the country, noting that many European countries had lifted their travel advisories to tourist destinations such as Luxor, Aswan and the Red Sea, and that some, such as Sweden, have even lifted their travel advisories altogether.

The U.S. State Department continues to warn U.S. citizens to defer nonessential travel to Egypt, but the updated travel warning, released Feb. 18, no longer advises that "U.S. citizens should consider leaving Egypt as soon as they can safely do so."

"If you look at what's happening in Libya and Bahrain, we really feel that the warning in Egypt should be lifted," said Big Five's Sanghrajka. "This was basically a democratic transition."

Alluding to countries like Kenya and Israel, which have had State Department-issued travel warnings in place for years now, Sanghrajka said, "Either the travel warning will be lifted, or the travel warning will be accepted and it will be taken with a grain of salt."

Sanghrajka said that for those travelers who still plan to go to Egypt, "a common question we are getting asked [is], 'Are we going to have tourism police with us?'" He said that if requested, Big Five can arrange it.

While the damage to the region's tourism industries in total revenue loss is yet to be tallied, operators remained optimistic that in the long term, the changes afoot are better for both the people of North Africa and the Middle East and for the travelers heading there.
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