BERLIN: Tour operators and travel officials may be encouraging people to travel to Egypt and Tunisia after their largely peaceful revolutions, but it will take time for holidaymakers to return in their former numbers.
Egypt’s economy ground nearly to a halt during weeks of protests that started on Jan. 25 and toppled the government of Hosni Mubarak, and some of its main sources of foreign exchange, including tourism, have collapsed.
Tourism is a key source of income for Tunisia, too, accounting for 7 percent of its GDP and providing jobs for about 30 percent of the population.
"Over the past few days we have seen the beginning of recovery; hotel occupancy is increasing, the situation is bouncing back," Egypt’s new tourism minister Mounir Abdel Nour told visitors to the ITB travel fair in Berlin.
While Nour believes Egypt can match 2010’s visitor total of 14.2 million people, Tunisia expects tourist arrivals to slide this year to 60-80 percent of last year’s 7 million, tourism Minister Mehdi Houas told Reuters.
Tour operators in Germany, the world’s biggest spenders on international holidays, say bookings to the countries for the summer have collapsed by as much as 50 percent.
The big three tour operators, TUI Germany, Thomas Cook AG and Rewe, have now restarted holidays to the countries after a hiatus in February.
"The two destinations are coming on slowly," said Peter Fankhauser, head of Thomas Cook’s German unit.
Marketing the revolution
The countries’ tourism authorities, however, have not been slow to grab the marketing opportunity offered by the uprisings.
Egypt’s huge stand at the ITB, the world’s largest travel trade fair, is emblazoned with slogans such as "Online revolution — made in Egypt" and postmarks of Jan. 25, the day on which the protests began.
Visitors can also take away small posters with the message "Tahrir Square — from Egypt with love."
Tunisia’s is more modest, calling on people to visit "now!", while the tang of revolution is still in the air.
"The big difference is now you can see a country with its face uncovered," said Tunisia tourism minister Mehdi Houas, who admits the uprising took him by surprise.
President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali was toppled by mass protests on Jan. 14 after 23 years of autocratic rule and fled to Saudi Arabia.
Taleb Rifai, Secretary-General of the United Nations World Tourism Organization, said the new political landscape was creating opportunities to attract visitors.
"People are going to Egypt to see many places — the Pyramids, Luxor, the Red Sea — and now they’re adding Tahrir Square; it’s become something for them to admire," he said.
German economy minister Rainer Bruederle also said at the ITB opening ceremony, "The people have earned our sympathy. We must help them out."
The most recent summer bookings figures for other sunny destinations indicate people do not yet feel comfortable choosing Egypt and Tunisia for their holidays.
Rewe said Turkey had gained in particular, with bookings up around 50 percent, while Thomas Cook and TUI have shifted capacity to Spanish destinations such as the Canary Islands.
Emirates President Tim Clark told Reuters it was having a knock-on effect in neighboring countries, as often people travel first to Egypt and then on to places like Jordan.
Starwood Hotels CEO Frits van Paasschen said Egypt, where its hotels are currently only between 5 and 30 percent full, may be helped by the fact it has some convention business.
"Once the world feels like the water is safe to jump back in, business will resume fairly normally," he added. –Additional reporting by Rene Wagner, Brian Rohan and Maria Sheahan