By Thomas Doherty
The good news is that tourism to Egypt has shown some growth this year, with an increase of 5.5% in January over the previous year, according to the government’s statistical bureau. This growth means hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign exchange and GDP, with the corresponding growth of jobs and income for Egyptians.
The bad news is this growth will certainly be hurt by the poorly planned roll-out of new visa rules back in March. By first announcing worldwide that all individual travellers who are not part of an “official tour group” would have to apply for visas in advance at an Egyptian diplomatic mission, then reversing that decision days later, the government created confusion in a market where individual choice and convenience rules. The eventual decision to implement a visa-on-arrival system like Sri Lanka’s or Turkey’s may not hurt tourism much, but the confusion caused by the initial announcement did, with reports of trip cancellations.
The new rules are reportedly directed at individual travellers. It is difficult to understand the bias against individual travellers expressed by the Egyptian government. Studies have shown that independent travellers, who make their own flight and hotel bookings outside of tour groups, tend to stay longer, spend more, and patronize more local businesses than package tour groups.
How can the situation be turned to Egypt’s advantage? The government can make the best of a bad situation and extend visa-on-arrival in the new system to individual travellers from countries which now require visas to be issued by Egyptian diplomatic missions abroad. In particular, China and the emerging market countries of Asia like Thailand have a large number of high-income people who might consider visiting Egypt if they could benefit from the new visa-on-arrival system. Why not include them in the new system, instead of requiring them to get a visa at an Egyptian mission abroad?
It’s clear that Egypt has the sovereign right to impose any kind of visa policy it wishes. Nobody disputes that. It’s also clear that foreign tourists have the right to make their own choices about where to travel to. In a world where a two week vacation can be booked in less than ten minutes online, it’s essential that the new system be well-designed and easy-to-use. There are clear models for the new system in Sri Lanka, India and Turkey.
I’ve used all of those systems, and they are more-or-less user friendly. The Turkish and Sri Lankan ones are very easy, while the Indian one requires scans and photographs with specific dimensions and file sizes and can take more than an hour, assuming you have the passport scan and photograph. Obviously, more difficult applications are a deterrent to visitors. The new systems must be reliable and rapid, with turnaround times of less than three days. All elements must be thoroughly tested before being introduced. Perhaps an interim period where travellers have the option of obtaining a visa in advance or at the airport is advisable. Thousands of hotel workers, guides, drivers, and restaurant workers are depending on a competent execution of the new system.
Let’s hope the Egyptian government gets the new visa policy right.
Thomas Doherty is a lawyer and an international development and regulatory reform consultant who has worked in UNDP, USAID, EuropeAid and UK programs.