For the first time since the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, Travel Weekly is sending a reporter to Egypt to help gauge if the country is ready to reignite tourism. Senior editor Michelle Baran, who has been to Egypt three times for Travel Weekly, most recently in March 2011, will be traveling throughout the country with Abercrombie & Kent. Her first dispatch follows.
The last time I was in Egypt was in March 2011, less than two months after the Jan. 25 revolution that saw the resignation of former president Hosni Mubarak.
I toured the country and reported on the relative calm after the initial revolutionary storm and on the drastic halt in tourism Egypt had experienced in light of the uprising. But few could predict back then just how bad the situation was going to get in the coming months and years before it would start to get better.
What many in Egypt and in the tourism industry had hoped would be a relatively short-lived transition turned into a three-year political and economic crisis that resulted in a prolonged near-shutdown of Egypt’s tourism sector.
Local guides and others in the tourism industry here told me that they have been waiting so long for tourists to return that many had given up hope that the business would ever return. There are plenty here who had to leave the industry altogether to seek out work in other sectors during the last three years because they simply couldn’t afford to wait it out. And who could blame them.
Visiting the Pyramids of Giza this past weekend on Abercrombie & Kent’s 10-day “President’s Journey to Egypt,” the lack of tourists made it seem like the pyramids were rather bustling when I visited in 2011. I assume that is due to several factors, including the fact that in 2011 people still didn’t know where the political situation was headed and likely had existing reservations on the books.
But after three years of clashes and crisis, and as many tour operators consequently canceled their Egypt programs altogether, the bookings have all but dried up. Egypt’s tourism industry is now having to rebuild from ground zero.
“Three years, no business,” a desperate-looking camel handler at the pyramids pleaded with me. My heart sank. Can you imagine what that kind of wait must have felt like?
But it appears that the crippling tourism drought to which my camel handler was referring could finally be over. After three years that saw Egypt at times violently cycle through Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi and interim president Adly Mansour, the country finally appears to be behind President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who was elected into office in May.
“For the first time, people are trusting their leader and for the first time he is giving hope to the people,” said Mona Makram-Ebeid, a political science and sociology lecturer at the American University of Cairo, a well-known voice in Egyptian politics and a former member of parliament, who spoke during the welcome dinner for the A&K President’s Journey.
According to Makram-Ebeid, there already have been several tests of Egyptians’ faith in al-Sisi during his first 100 days in office that have showed that for the foreseeable future, Egyptians are willing to stand behind their newly elected leader.
For one, when al-Sisi cut government subsidies as part of larger austerity measures, the backlash was manageable. Secondly, al-Sisi asked Egyptian citizens to contribute to the expansion of the Suez Canal and become stakeholders in their country’s future, and they ended up funding much of the project out of their own pockets, according to Makram-Ebeid.
Makram-Ebeid and others to whom I spoke on the matter acknowledged that Egypt isn’t out of the woods yet. Al-Sisi has a big job ahead of him. But having gained the trust of the Egyptian people in his first few months in office, he has bought himself some time to continue to build on that trust.
And as the situation in Egypt continues to stabilize, the tourism sector is seeing signs of hope, too.
“What we need now is foreign investment,” said Makram-Ebeid. “Tourism was one of our main returns. And there was a sharp reduction in past years. But all over Egypt, the hotels are filling up gradually.”
After spending a few days in Cairo, the climate feels much more calm and subdued than in 2011, like that of a country that is getting back to business.