– In the wake of the Muslim world’s angry reaction to cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, the number of Western European vacationers to Egypt has fallen noticeably, according to industry insiders.
“The drop in the Western European market – the French, Germans, Italians and Swiss – is very remarkable, and it’s definitely having a negative effect,” Mohamed Fawzi, director of sales at the Egyptian branch of Paris-based hotelier Accor told IPS. “Tourist numbers from these countries have fallen significantly,” he added, estimating the drop at between 20 and 25 percent.
The tourism sector is of vital importance to the local economy, bringing in some 6.1 billion dollars in revenue in 2004, according to the Central Bank of Egypt. What is more, the industry employs an estimated 2.5 million citizens, in a country locked in mortal combat with chronic unemployment and an exploding population.
Despite political turbulence in the region, especially since the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington in 2001, the tourism sector has outperformed expectations in recent years. In 2004, Egypt hosted an unprecedented total of more than 8.1 million vacationers. According to sources at the Ministry of Tourism, the momentum has lasted into 2006, with January seeing a 7 percent increase on the month in terms of tourist arrivals.
The ministry, under newly-appointed Minister of Tourism Zoheir Garana, hopes to maintain this trend by increasing tourist numbers by one million per annum, thereby creating – both directly and indirectly – some 200,000 new jobs in the sector.
But declining numbers of western tourists who account for approximately two-thirds of tourist arrivals could derail these ambitions. “The cartoon issue has had a negative effect on the industry,” Mohamed Sakr, head of the political and economic department at Cairo University and former economic advisor to the ministry of tourism told IPS.
“This is especially the case regarding tourism from the countries directly involved, namely, Denmark and Norway,” he added. The cartoons were first published in Denmark and then in Norway before being re-published in other European countries such as Germany and France.
While precise figures are not available for recent arrivals from these destinations, some local tour operators have reportedly halted their Scandinavian operations. According to tourism ministry spokesperson Hala Khatib, about 300,000 travelers from Denmark, Sweden and Norway came to Egypt last year. “Scandinavia represents an important part of our overall profile of tourists,” she said.
“The cartoons were very insensitive, but we still welcome travelers from these countries,” Khatib told IPS. “We’ve officially stated that we want tourists from every country and of every religion – we have nothing against anyone.”
Khatib went on to note that some western markets had surged recently, despite ongoing political frictions in the region. Tourist arrivals from Britain, she said, rose by 53 percent in 2005, while the long-suffering U..S. market was fast returning to “pre-9/11 levels.”
Thierry Bertin, area director of sales and marketing in the Middle East for global hotel chain Hyatt International, admitted a drop in Western European arrivals since the beginning of the row in January, but added, “It’s still too early to judge the effects.” He said this was due mainly to the fact that reservation booking patterns at Red Sea destinations, popular among western travelers, were generally of a long-term nature.
“I don’t expect it to have a big impact,” Bertin told IPS. “Occupancy rates in Cairo have been minimally affected.”
Flagging arrivals from Western Europe could not be entirely blamed on the cartoon controversy, he said. “I think this is more related to what happened in Sinai last summer,” he said, referring to the triple bomb attacks at the Red Sea resort city Sharm El-Sheikh last July that killed more than 80 people including several tourists. “The precise reasons are very difficult to isolate.”
But as the Western European market has slackened, rising visitor numbers from Asia – particularly from China and India – are beginning to fill the vacuum, with some in the industry talking of an ‘Asian invasion’. “The Asian market is definitely growing,” noted Sakr. “This is a new and promising market for Egypt.”
Sakr said Asian vacationers could not be expected take the place of their western counterparts in the short term, but he stressed the importance of bolstering Egypt’s share of big eastern markets. “There’s hope particularly for an increase in tourist numbers from China,” he said.
According to Khatib, the tourism ministry “isn’t simply looking to substitute one nationality with another.” Nevertheless, she conceded that industry planners were devoting considerable attention to up-and-coming Asian markets. “To reach our goals (for tourist arrivals), we have to open new markets, like those of China and India,” she said.
“We’re inviting more journalists from both these countries, and have recently opened offices there,” Khatib added. “We’ve also allocated more funding to promote Egypt in these markets.” She went on to note that the two Asian giants were together expected to produce some 150 million tourists per year by 2020.
Bertin, too, confirmed that Asian tourist numbers, although still small, were rising. “They aren’t big numbers, but they’re growing,” he said.
He attributed the rising numbers to new regional flight routes, airlines and transit hubs. “Since there’s more air capacity available, we’re seeing the benefits from the markets of the subcontinent and the Far East,” Bertin said. “Additionally, the emergence of Dubai as a major transit hub and the launch of several regional airlines have served to bring new clients.”
Fawzi agreed that new air routes had made Egypt considerably more accessible to Asian travelers. “Previously, one of the main obstacles to these markets was their lack of access to flights,” he said. “But that’s changed now, with EgyptAir routes to Beijing and Qatar Airways flights directly to Luxor (in Upper Egypt).”
Hoteliers warned, however, that it was easy to exaggerate the trend. “The number of Asian tourists has increased noticeably, but you’re comparing it to zero. The market didn’t exist before, except in small numbers,” Fawzi said. “But it’s sure to represent a major trend in the future.”
This article was initially published at ISP