The Egyptian coast that lines the Red Sea, from the Sinai Peninsula all the way down to the border of Sudan, is peppered with towns that host all varieties of touristic facilities. For many years they have been favourite destinations for those in search of sun and sea, diving and snorkelling and wind and kitesurfing. Package holidays that combine flights with hotels are sold throughout Europe for competitive prices resulting in an industry that provides employment for a large segment of the population and brings in much needed foreign currency.
Since the January 25th Revolution the number of tourists in Egypt has been dwindling at a much lower number than before and many of those working in this industry have been struggling to keep their businesses. Currently many European countries have issued travel warnings for Egypt, adding to the already heavy burden of hotels, restaurants, watersport related businesses and small shops.
I recently traveled to El Gouna for the wedding of a friend and spent a week walking through the mostly empty streets of the beautiful resort town located 25 km north of Hurghada. The town is home to several long term residents who run different tourism related businesses and they shared their experiences of the past few weeks and their expectations for the future with me.
Christophe Lambrecht is the COO of The Three Corners, a family run business, which operates 11 hotels throughout Egypt. He has lived in Egypt since 1987 and lives in El Gouna where the company has two hotels; the family oriented Rihana Resort and Inn and the adult-only Ocean View.
“The first six months of 2013 were not bad, and especially June was a very good month for us,” Lambrecht said. “We actually did better than in 2010 and we contribute that to both being more streamlined and cost-effective and of course the devaluation of the Egyptian Pound.”
Shortly after the state of emergency was declared and a curfew was announced several European countries issued a negative travel advice, either recommending against all travel or saying that only essential travel to Red Sea resorts was recommended.
Most tour operators decided to let those guests already in Egypt finish their vacations, creating the strange situation of empty planes flying to Egypt to pick up tourists without bringing any new ones to the country. Scandinavian tour operators made the decision to evacuate all their guests at once and regardless of when and how the negative travel advice for Egypt will be lifted, a decision has been made that until 1 January 2014 no Scandinavian tourists will come to Egypt.
Charter flights to Egypt are still arriving from the UK and on 16 August Kayleigh and Ross Higgins waited at Gatwick airport to see if they would be able to board their long-awaited trip to El Gouna. “We have been here before,” Kayleigh said, “and we had been following the news but were not scared. We know El Gouna and knew it would be safe.” After waiting a while the decision was made by the Home Office that travel to the Red Sea was still deemed ok, and the couple was able to travel to Egypt.
“We would have loved to go to Luxor but that was not possible this time,” Kayleigh said, “but we will be back. We have felt completely safe and had a great holiday.”
Scuba diving has attracted many tourists to the Red Sea over the years and is an integral part of the appeal of these destinations. Nikolai Baumann, owner of diving centre The Dive Connection and PADI Course Director and Tech and Rebreather instructor has lived in EL Gouna since 1997. The majority of his guests are repeaters and from Germany but since January 2011 there has been a significant decline in turnover, and not many new guests have found their way to Egypt.
In a corner one student is starting the PADI Open Water Course, a first level diving course, but the rest of the diving centre located in one of the many hotels El Gouna has is very quiet. “Several big travel agencies have cancelled their flights to Egypt. There are still a few German companies flying to Hurghada but even the repeaters that know El Gouna well are reluctant to come,” he said. “The student who is starting today arrived in a plane that carried only 30 people.”
The newer and highly popular watersport kitesurfing is another reason why many people choose to visit El Gouna. Several well equipped and up to standard kite centres line the beaches on the north side of town and the ever-prevalent wind and shallow water close to the shore make it a perfect location for both beginning and experienced kiters.
Nele Hildebrandt has lived in Egypt for 10 years and since January 2011, together with her partner, she owns Osmosis Kiteboarding located in the Club Med hotel in El Gouna. “One month after we started we had to close down because the hotel did, but since we reopened in March 2011 business has been good,” she said.
The kitecentre caters to French-speaking guests from Belgium, Switzerland and France, and so far the French planes are still flying. “Many of our guests decide once they are here to kitesurf and the hotel gets a lot of repeaters,” Hildebrandt said, which is a possible explanation that even if the number of guests is a bit lower than before, the kitecentre is still doing ok.
When you walk around town the peacefulness is soothing after the congested traffic, the tension and the imposed curfew of Cairo. But when you take a closer look you notice that there are very few people about and shop after shop that line the different centres of the town are empty, apart from the shopkeeper who often dozes behind the counter. The terraces of the restaurants are empty with cutlery that goes unused glittering in the sunlight.
“We love it here,” Ross said, “but it is very sad to see the impact on the local businesses.” He described the owner of a small papyrus shop in the hotel who had reduced his prices to 1 Euro in the desperate hope of selling anything.
While turmoil in the country has impacted businesses before, this time it is happening right in the busiest season of the year for some. “This is high season for us, and this is the time we make our money to sustain us through the quieter winter months,” Baumann said.
Hoda Mansour is the owner of The Club House pool bar and restaurant has lived in El-Gouna since 1998. Located in Downtown it is an old favourite among those that know the town well and a place where many residents come for a meal and swim in the pool. “There has been a decline in business since 2011,” Mansour said, “but not as bad as we experienced after 9/11.”
Operating an independent restaurant is challenging even if the number of tourists is high Mansour explained. “Many tourists are here on all-inclusive packages and they do not spend outside of their hotel. I work more with local residents and the dive and kite centres who bring their guests along.”
El Gouna is also a location where many Egyptians have a second home and after the January 2011 revolution many chose to spend their summer here instead of the more traditional North Coast. “Foreign villa owners still came and spent their summer here but many Egyptian villa owners went to the North Coast this summer so also here the numbers are down,” Mansour said. “We will still find people to feed though,” she added, “but the small shop and bazaar owners are the ones suffering the most right now. There are days when they do not even see someone pass by.”
All of the business owners I spoke to have a great loyalty to the location, the country and their staff. “Because we have had a few difficult years most of us have used our reserves to keep working and ensure our staff a place of work,” Baumann said. “Right now we are faced with massive cancellations and no new bookings for the next few months. Our goals are still the same though; keep our staff working and keep ensuring our guests receive the same high level of quality as we always give.”
At the time of print the two Three Corners Hotels had an occupancy of 50% and 35% respectively but “we are going to 10% occupancy next month and then even to 6%,” Lambrecht said. The group employs 2500 staff and is trying all they can to ensure they can keep them employed.
The after-effects of the negative travel advice will be felt for months to come. “Package tourists book their vacations a long time in advance and tour operators reserve flights as soon as they have 30% bookings for a destination,” Lambrecht said. “Nobody is booking now so I expect it will take until February until things are back to normal.”
“There are two types of tourists that we see here,” Mansour said, “the package tourists and the adventure tourists who come to dive or kitesurf.” And according to Hildebrandt “kitesurfers will keep coming until there are no flights to be found.”
There are several diving centres around El Gouna and they recently had a meeting to see how they can cooperate in order to pass the difficult times ahead. “From 1 September we will be sharing boats with two other diving centres and we will use two boats alternately. This way we can spread the cost and both boats can keep working,” Baumann said. He added that many colleagues have left and some have put their staff on freelance basis but at the Dive Connection they are sticking it out together as long as possible. “Egypt is home and we are a family here,” he said.
It is hard to realise that the images of strife and turmoil that are and have been featured prominently on the news are in the same country as the tranquillity I saw all around me. There is not much anyone can do as long as there is negative travel advice for Egypt but “I hope the tour operators will show Egypt support and loyalty once the travel advice is adjusted, it is a very sad situation,” Hildebrandt said.
“It is important we send a message that El Gouna is quiet and that people can experience a great vacation here,” Lambrecht said. “Not just for our business but for the country as a whole, they deserve our efforts and support.”