Egypt travel sector to protest political appointment at meeting

Leaders of Egypt’s travel industry associations will convene a special meeting in Cairo on Wednesday to protest the appointment of Adel el-Khayat, a fundamentalist Islamist, as the new governor in Luxor

El-Khayat was previously associated with Gamaa Islamiya, a militant Islamic group that claimed credit for the massacre of 62 people, including 58 tourists, in Luxor at the Temple of Hatshepsut in 1997.

Although Gamaa Islamiya officially renounced terrorism more than a decade ago, the group is considered a pillar of Egypt’s ultra-conservative Islamist movement, which, in addition to the Luxor massacre, was responsible for the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

Outraged industry leaders are expected to issue statements to the government and the news media when they meet, objecting to the appointment and asking the government to reverse its decision.

In addition to consternation over his Gamaa Islamiya ties, industry leaders expressed concern about how fundamentalist policies would affect tourism. El-Khayat’s party supports implementing Islamic Shariah law, which among other things outlaws alcohol consumption and requires adult women to wear the veil known as the hijab.

Egypt’s tourism industry, which is already reeling from a sharp drop in visitors since the uprising that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak — from just under 15 million in 2010 to 11.5 million last year — considers any Islamic oversight of tourism a recipe for crippling the industry.

In an interview with Reuters, el-Khayat, who is now affiliated with the political arm of Gamaa Islamiya, attempted to distance himself from the group’s bloody past, saying he would welcome and keep tourists safe.

In the immediate wake of the appointment last week, tourism workers protested outside the governor’s residence in Luxor although el-Khayat had not yet arrived.

In addition, Egypt’s tourism minister, Hisham Zaazou, tendered his resignation in protest, although the prime minister has declined to accept it.

“Everybody in the travel field here is astonished at such an appointment,” said Mohamed El Hassanein, chairman and CEO of Galaxia Group in Cairo. “And they started manifesting it [by demonstrating] in front of the governor’s house in Luxor. ”

As for Zaazou’s attempt to resign, “all members of our field are supporting the minister in his decision,” El Hassanein said.

Manal Saad Kelig, partner and director of sales and marketing at Gateway to Egypt in Cairo, said that “many Egyptians are not comfortable, nor convinced that [individuals with el-Khayat’s background] are fit to occupy public posts.”

El Hassanein said the Egyptian Travel Federation, an organization of five trade groups representing different travel sectors including travel agencies, would attempt to put pressure on the authorities “in order to change the appointment.”

He added that, should their efforts fail, the trade group leaders could resign in protest.

Despite the industry’s outrage over what they see as, at the very least, an insensitive choice for the office of Luxor governor, tour operators reached by
Travel Weekly were not hopeful that industry protests would change anything.

El Hassanein said President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, is the first leader to rectify his own mistakes. But he said the reality of Egyptian politics could tip the scales against the industry.

“We don’t know what will happen,” he said, “because this [government] has been a kind of coalition” in which Morsi needs the support of conservative Islamists.

Kelig said she didn’t “have a good feeling about it, as no concrete steps have been taken” since the industry voiced its views.

There are reasons the president wouldn’t want to reverse himself, said Amr Badr, managing director for Egypt and the Middle East at Abercrombie & Kent Egypt. Even so, he said, the pressure could eventually prove to be too great for Morsi to resist.

All three want the president to rescind the appointment, but Badr added another option: “Maybe el-Khayat himself could put Egypt first and withdraw.”

Badr said he is sorely disappointed that such a controversial appointment was not explained in advance of or even immediately after the announcement.

He suggested that one possible positive motive, for example, could have been to prove, by appointing a conservative Islamist, that everyone in Egypt is pro-
tourism, “that all are united here.”

However, he said, even if it was well intended, it is too late now to explain Morsi’s motive.

Mohamed Hegazy, the tourism attache with the Egyptian Tourist Authority in New York, said Egypt’s government “accepts all these comments, and the president and prime minister are studying the situation.” He said the government “should come out with word soon” on its official response.

Hegazy said he did not know the background or reasoning behind the el-Khayat appointment and could not predict how the government might respond to the travel industry’s vigorous objections.

“We need to wait and see,” he said.

As of press time late last week, the Egyptian government had not responded to the protests.

Meanwhile, Badr said, in a country beset by controversy in recent months, anger over this appointment is bound to hurt business.

El Hassanein said the appointment evokes memories of the Luxor massacre, “making people remember what had been almost forgotten.”

Besides, he said, “this man has no idea about how to promote tourism. On the contrary, his group is against tourism.” And if el-Khayat embraced a kind of tourism controlled by Islamic principles, he said, it would undermine the tourist experience.

Some American-based operators sided with their Egyptian counterparts in objecting to el-Khayat, agreeing that the resulting bad publicity will hurt tourism.

Ashish Sanghrajka, president of Big Five Tours, called the appointment “a very questionable move. ... How can a man with this track record be in such a position?”

He said Morsi should reflect on his own remarks of a year ago “that he must never forget that almost half the country didn’t vote for him.”

As for tourism, he said, “This should not have any additional effect [on an already depressed market] other than a perception problem, which already exists.”

Kate Simpson, president of Academic Travel Abroad, said the appointment makes it clear that “someone is not thinking about public relations.”

“Any bad press will hurt Egypt,” she said. “And those [prospective travelers] who are paying attention will be less inclined to go,” at least for a time.

As for the impact on the ground, Ya’lla Tours President Ronen Paldi said that ongoing operations would not be affected by who is governor.

“The main interest of everyone, from the president to the gatekeepers at tourist sites, is for tourism to flow,” he said.

He declined to comment on the el-Khayat choice, recalling that some of Mubarak’s choices also upset people. He sees this appointment as part of Morsi’s effort to consolidate power.

Although Paldi recalled that el-Khayat was once quoted as saying that all of Egypt’s pharonic temples should be covered because they are pagan creations, he nevertheless predicted that having a religious governor “will have no effect on tourism. Alcohol will be served,” for example. “But [el-Khayat] won’t bring much development either.”

He said tourism to Egypt has been coming back, doubling so far this year for Ya’lla.But he also acknowledged that it was starting from a low point. He estimated that U.S. travel is still at only 15% to 20% of what it was before the Arab Spring.

As Kelig put it, Egypt is “still like a cat on a hot tin roof,” which keeps business “very weak.”

U.S. Tour Operators Association President Terry Dale said the el-Khayat appointment “further complicates a challenging environment.” But Dale said he was not sure how it would affect business. He said his members were continuing to monitor the situation.

Egyptian officials frequently point out that no tourist has been targeted or injured since the start of the Arab Spring. And, given the low turnout these days and good prices, Badr said now was actually the best time to visit.


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