By Thomas Doherty
President Al-Sisi has repeatedly emphasised the importance of the tourism sector. The head of the Egyptian Tourist Authority Samy Mahmoud said he wants to target the Asian and Russian markets, and the former head of the Federation of Tourism Chambers Elhamy Elzayat has called for more investment in tourist infrastructure. Tourism will continue to be important for the Egyptian economy, up to 10% or more of GDP. Recently, tourism has shown some growth, but has not rebounded to pre-2011 levels. What to do to boost the tourism sector?
Security will be an issue for the immediate future, but not an insurmountable one, especially for more adventurous individual travellers. Contrary to the intent of visa rules which would make it more difficult for individual travellers, the tourism authorities should encourage independent tourism. Studies have shown that independent travellers spend more, stay longer, and patronize more local businesses than group package tourists.
After the fiasco of the announcement and retraction of new visa rules, there are some things which can boost tourism beyond the group tour to the pyramids and Luxor and beach resort crowds:
– Use the new visa procedures as an opportunity. While most countries which send tourists to Egypt are already the beneficiaries of the visa on arrival programme, the rising economies of Asia are often subject to submitting visa applications to Egyptian diplomatic missions prior to visiting. Depending on security considerations, procedures for China and other rising economies like Thailand could possibly be eased to allow for the same online visa applications being implemented for them as for the EU and the US.
– Break the Giza mafias. Visitors, especially individual travellers, are often confronted with harassment at the Giza pyramids. On a recent visit, a man tried to jump into the taxi with my female companion and me, and threatened the taxi driver when he refused to let him sit. I’ve spoken to expats living in Egypt who have never visited the pyramids because of their bad reputation for thuggish intimidation. The US embassy once issued a travel warning regarding Giza. Surely the Egyptian state can prevent harassing behaviour at its signature tourist attraction.
– Improve historical interpretation of museums and sites. “Interpreting” or explaining an historical site improves the visitor experience. For example, the Egyptian Museum is a fantastic collection of ancient artefacts and art, but the items in the museum are not explained very well by accompanying texts. There are no exhibits which provide broader social and historical contexts for the artefacts. Perhaps the Grand Egyptian Museum will improve on this. Other sites, like in the Valley of the Kings, have better interpretation, but these are often the product of foreign aid programmes rather than a systematic effort by the Egyptian Government.
– Stop publicly blaming generic “foreigners” for problems in Egypt. Tourists are “foreigners.” If the Egyptian government blames the generic “foreigner” for a problem or incident in Egypt, the “foreigner” might get the impression he is unwelcome. Gone are the days when politicians could make speeches denouncing “foreigners” to domestic audiences and it was only reported in local newspapers and broadcast media. It is not 1965 anymore. Anti-“foreigner” rhetoric expressed by the government within Egypt is instantly disseminated around the world.
– Promote language tourism. While the security situation in Egypt is not perfect, it is much better than countries which formerly hosted large numbers of students learning Arabic as a foreign language, such as Syria and Yemen, and is better or similar to Lebanon and Jordan. This creates an opportunity for Egypt to attract long-term language students.
– Promote architectural and lifestyle tourism in Cairo and Alexandria as unique urban destinations. Cairo and Alexandria are outdoor museums of the Islamic, Belle Epoque, Art Deco and Modernist architectural styles. There’s an interesting building around every corner in these cities. In a world where the same chains and same styles increasingly dominate commercial life everywhere, Cairo is indisputably authentic and individual. Cairo is also a great cultural centre, with music events and dance performances every night at the Opera House, El Sawy Culturewheel, Arab Music Institute and other venues.
Providing a pleasant experience at the pharaonic sites is essential, but a tourism marketing campaign along the lines of “Egypt: not just the pyramids” can also inform potential visitors of the many pleasures of visiting Egypt beyond the pharaonic sites. Taking a late afternoon walk admiring the buildings in downtown Cairo, having a glass of sugarcane juice, and sitting in a sidewalk café? Lifestyle, architecture, food and culture: this is an aspect of Egypt unknown to most potential visitors and should be promoted more.
Thomas Doherty is a lawyer and an international development and regulatory reform consultant who has worked in UNDP, USAID, EuropeAid and UK programmes