CAIRO: As 2009 slinks into its second month, the pulsing streets of downtown Cairo and the stores that line them are hurting – badly.
Downtown Cairo was once the epicenter of life in Africa’s largest city. Bars, restaurants and stores line it streets; the old British architecture and historic monuments paying tribute to the area s rich history.
The vendors there have flourished in times of western rule and Arab solidarity. It has suffered the pangs of coups and assassinations.
But today, with the global economy in a state of despair, merchants along Talaat Harb Street, one of Cairo’s most storied, are feeling the pinch.
Ehab El-Gabri runs a souvenir shop called Golden Star Bazaar, between Talaat Harb Square and Tahrir. Mugs bearing the visage of King Tutankhamen and plates with images of the pyramids adorn the walls of his small shop.
“The symptoms of this economic depression are just beginning to be felt, El-Gabri said.
The problem that El-Gabri is facing, though, is the same as the one that many vendors on the street do: the tourists just aren’t showing up.
“There is less tourist business than their used to be, said El-Gabri.
Though El-Gabri conceded that he has “never depended on tourist traffic, the absence of foreigners has started to hurt.
“There aren’t a lot of tourists coming to downtown, he said.
El-Gabri noted that Talaat Harb Street, with its narrow stalls, provides a lot of competition so his profit margins, global recession aside, are low.
After making inventory rounds to factories on Cairo’s outskirts, he then adds a modest markup to each product, perhaps as little as 10 or 15 percent.
He noted that wholesale prices haven’t fallen much, so he has struggled to balance the pressure to reduce prices and stimulate business on one hand and to hold onto his small profit margin on the other.
Abul Yazid Bassiouni manages a leather goods store just down the street from El-Gabri. The lack of tourists in downtown has taken its toll on his business too.
“The main problem is that sales are down because tourism is down, said Bassiouni, whose store is called Savoy. “I don’t depend on tourism, but it’s still an important part.
Bassiouni is particularly concerned about his business because leather, he explained, is a winter good. He depends on turning a heavy profit over these months to make up for slower sales in the summer.
Like many merchants on the street, Bassiouini is trying different strategies to lure in tourists and Egyptians alike.
“I dropped my prices because vendors have been selling at lower rates to get business, he said.
Bassiouni is fortunate that his wholesalers have reduced prices, allowing him to offer discounts without cutting too deeply into his profit margins.
But in a continued effort to boost sales, Savoy is trying other tactics too.
“We’re open longer hours, he explained, “just to pay salaries, but it’s only coming back to bite us because of the higher electricity bills, overtime, etc.
Despite largely successful efforts by the government to boost tourism revenues in recent years, hotel bookings for January are reportedly down 30 percent from a year ago.
The recent hit the industry has taken seems to be reflecting itself in the fact that most businessmen reported that the slowdown in their incomes started only recently, and long after the recession began.
“I began taking a hit three weeks ago, said Mohammad Gind, a manager at Abouda Shoes, “because tourist sales are way down.
“It used to be people walking in, browsing, and picking up a couple of books, said Ahmed Madbuli, director of Talaat Harb’s famous Madbuli Bookshop. “But about two and a half months ago, it changed. Now it’s mostly people I know coming in for specific books.
If downtown’s vaunted streets take a hit, it is likely that the whole city will suffer. In the meantime, merchants there are doing all they can to avoid becoming the bad economy’s latest victims.