In a recent TravelWeekly.com poll, we asked, "When will tourists return to Egypt?" Of the 187 responses received as of press time, 10.7% chose "spring," 24.1% indicated "fall," and a significant majority -- 65.2% -- clicked "sometime in 2012."
This is not a scientific survey, but even if the margin of error were 20%, these are disconcerting results. Indications are that calm has returned to Egypt, but if tourists wait until 2012 to return, the calm may not hold.
In a country where unemployment was at about 10% before the revolution, and unemployment among the young was about 25%, the prospect of idling another 1.2 million people who are directly employed in tourism will have a strong negative societal impact. And a multiple of this number of people would feel an indirect negative impact on their lives and businesses, as well: Tourism represents 11.3% of Egypt's gross domestic product, 40% of its noncommodity exports and 19.3% of its foreign currency revenue.
The TravelWeekly.com poll suggests that future bookings might not return for at least 10 months, but that's only part of the story. According to several suppliers I've spoken with, travelers are canceling previously booked trips to Egypt despite the apparent return of normalcy in the tourism sector and the reopening of several important attractions, including Cairo's Egyptian Museum.
One person I spoke with was Mark Conroy, president of Regent Seven Seas Cruises. Conroy is monitoring the situation closely; when the revolution started, he had a ship on the wrong side of the Suez Canal. So far, he has not canceled planned stops in Safaga, Port Said or Sharm al-Sheikh scheduled for May 13 to 17, and for June, one of his ships is still set to call at Suez and Alexandria.
"I'm concerned that if tourism does not pick up and people don't get back to work, all the positives that have come out of this peaceful revolution will be lost," he said. "People without work tend to get desperate and start looking for alternative ways to survive."
Unlike ground operators and hoteliers, Conroy and other cruise executives have movable assets and can reschedule itineraries. "But," he said, "we really don't want to do that."
He sent a letter to his guests reassuring them that Regent was following developments carefully and that he was seeing several positive indicators.
"Our partner in Israel said it best," he wrote. "As he watched events unwind, he reminded me that this is the first time in memory that he did not see a U.S. or Israeli flag burned by the crowd."
Americans are notoriously skittish travelers -- Conroy remarked that they're "the first out and the last back" -- but there are some things that travel agents can do that will honestly position a visit to Egypt right now as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity rather than a risky proposition.
In his letter to clients, Conroy notes that not only will crowds be smaller, but guests will see "history in the making instead of just monuments."
Being among the first to arrive on the scene after historic change has occurred can be a deeply rewarding experience and enables visitors to engage with people in ways that don't normally occur.
I had the opportunity to tour Eastern Europe in January and February 1991, right after the fall of communism there. I visited Berlin and was able to take hammer and chisel to the Wall and chip off my own souvenir. In Bucharest, I documented dozens of impromptu shrines to those who had fallen in the violent days following the revolution, and I photographed busts of its former dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, hanging from trees. In Prague, I saw the new Czech president, Vaclav Havel, walking through a crowd. In Warsaw and Krakow, I felt at times that I had the place to myself; I went hours without seeing another tourist.
But what lingers most in my memory of that trip are the people I met. Typically, the relationship between most tourists and their hosts is a commercial one. People with whom you interact are selling you something, serving you something or expecting a tip in exchange for providing you with information.
In the months following a revolution, the dynamic changes. I had been to Eastern Europe before and had found that people were especially distant. Under communism, if the wrong person saw a citizen speaking with a Westerner, it could mean trouble.
But once the Iron Curtain lifted, people would stop me in the street to talk. Everybody was interested in telling me their story and asking questions. I made lasting friendships; I was adopted by one Romanian family in the Black Sea port of Constanta whom I still see once every few years (they're the travelers now, and visit me in the U.S.).
I believe Egypt offers a special opportunity. I've found that Egyptians, even under Mubarak, are among the warmest hosts in the world. I was once given the address of a guesthouse in an oasis in the Western Desert that I wanted to visit. The man who answered the door said his was not a guesthouse, but he nonetheless insisted I stay for dinner. In Cairo I've been bought countless cups of tea and coffee by strangers who wanted nothing more than to chat. I can only imagine the conversations that must be occurring among visitors and Egyptians today.
To jump-start tourism to the region, Egypt, its neighbors and interested U.S. travel companies are taking a proactive stance to say not only is that part of the world still open for business, but this is a great time to go. The National Tour Association is organizing a trip for journalists and industry association leaders to Egypt and Jordan for later this month. The Jordan Tourism Board also has a press trip planned for March and April, and Yalla Tours is putting one together for Egypt in May.
There is a lot at stake in getting tourists back to Egypt, and it goes beyond the commercial interests of tour operators and cruise lines or even the opportunities for tourists to interact with Egyptians.
"It's pretty amazing that [the revolution] has turned out as well as it has," Conroy told me. "But the book hasn't been completely written. My concern is that if people wait years before returning to Egypt, what the hell will happen to it?"
Indeed. Although it's not an argument that will spur travel to Egypt, the risk to America may be greater if Americans cancel a trip and stay home than if they venture forth and support Egypt through tourism.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.