CAIRO — For the first time in three years, there is hope.
Some political observers and many Egyptians in travel and tourism are optimistic that the calm following the election of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in May will inspire visitors to return to the country in large numbers, following a 35% drop in arrivals since 2010.
“For the first time, people are trusting their leader, and for the first time he is giving hope to the people.” That was the message delivered by Mona Makram-Ebeid, a political science and sociology lecturer at the American University of Cairo, to a group of 65 U.S. travelers during a welcome dinner at the Mena House Hotel in Giza last week for an Abercrombie & Kent President’s Journey to Egypt itinerary.
Makram-Ebeid pointed to activities during el-Sissi’s first 100 days that she believes reflect confidence in the new leadership. As an example, she said that when el-Sissi cut government subsidies as part of larger austerity measures, the backlash was manageable. El-Sissi also asked Egyptian citizens to contribute to the expansion of the Suez Canal, saying they would become stakeholders in their country’s future, and the citizenry provided funding for much of the project out of their own pockets.
Amr Badr, managing director of Abercrombie & Kent in Egypt, agreed with Makram-Ebeid’s assessment. “I think we’re done with uprisings. I think anyone who thinks there is a third wave is mistaken,” he said. “Egyptians want stability and a better life. There is no support for chaos and disorder.”
Many Egyptians who share in the optimism following el-Sissi’s election also acknowledge that they aren’t out of the woods yet. While the clout of the previously elected Muslim Brotherhood has diminished — it was deposed last year by Egyptian armed forces led by el-Sissi — the Islamist organization still has a presence in the country.
Furthermore, ongoing instability and uncertainty throughout the Middle East continues to be a challenge for Egypt, which plays a central role in the region.
Rebuilding Egypt after three years of political and economic turmoil will be no simple feat, but with the quieting of the political climate within Egypt, the country seems eager to get back to business. The tourism industry, both locally and abroad, has been champing at the bit to start selling Egypt again.
Since the initial upheavals in 2011, the expectations of tour operators, travel agents, hotels, cruise lines and their clients have been in constant flux.
Global suppliers cycled through periods of offering Egypt and not offering Egypt as tensions would boil and calm. By last year, many tour operators had canceled their Egypt programs entirely, because political uncertainty made the destination too difficult to sell.
The fallout on the ground is still palpable. Local guides and those in the tourism industry here said they have been waiting so long for tourists to return that many had given up hope that the business would ever come back. “Three years, no business,” is a common plea now heard by vendors throughout the country. Many workers had to leave the industry altogether to seek employment in other sectors because they couldn’t afford to wait it out.
Egypt had its best year on record in 2010, when the country welcomed 14 million international travelers. By 2013, Egypt’s tourist arrivals had fallen to 9.2 million, according to the World Tourism Organization.
In May, during the lead-up to the presidential election, Egyptian Tourism Minister Hisham Zaazou said in an interview with Reuters that by 2020 Egypt hoped to welcome more than 25 million tourists annually and bring its annual tourism revenue to $25 billion, double what the country achieved in 2010.
Today’s relative stability is setting the stage for that recovery, particularly after the U.S. Department of State downgraded its travel warning for Egypt to a travel alert in December.
Now the tour operators are returning.
In July, the Travel Corp. announced that its brands would re-enter the country in a big way this year and next, after having shuttered Egypt operations completely.
In September, its youth-oriented Contiki division began hosting Egypt departures, and Trafalgar and Insight Vacations will have Egypt departures beginning in January. Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection plans to begin sailing its 82-passenger River Tosca on the Nile in September 2015.
Alexander + Roberts (formerly General Tours World Traveler) just this month started departures of a new Visions of Egypt by Small Ship itinerary, and G Adventures is restarting its Egypt departures on Jan. 1.
Abercrombie & Kent has been working overtime to promote and sell its Egypt program anew. In March, the company hosted a President’s Journey to Egypt trip, attended by A&K USA President Phil Otterson.
The offering was repeated earlier this month, with demand so high that A&K booked five groups on that departure, each traveling with their own guide but sailing together on the 80-passenger Sun Boat IV.
On its website, the company has listed 19 departures of its 10-day Egypt & the Nile itinerary for 2015.
“As you know, it’s been a difficult time in Egypt,” Otterson told the audience of travelers who had booked the President’s Journey to Egypt last week. “But things are really starting to change.
“You’re all really smart — you’re getting a very good deal,” Otterson added, referring to the 50% discounts that the A&K guests received and the opportunity to experience Egypt with less crowding than would have been seen four years ago.
And if things continue in the direction they appear to be headed, the deals might not last for too much longer.