| ||The backpackers have returned. They are wandering through Cairo’s ancient Khan el-Khalili market and making their way through the traffic-choked streets to the pyramids at Giza.
The reappearance of foreign visitors at the capital’s tourist sites is borne out by statistics showing that Egypt’s tourism industry, a mainstay of its struggling economy, has experienced a modest recovery – the latest sign that the country’s broader economic picture may be improving.
Tourist arrivals have shot up nearly 70 per cent in the third quarter of 2014 compared with the same period last year. Arrivals in September increased 193 per cent compared with the same month in 2013, with 884,000 arrivals compared with 301,000.
“The overall sector has seen a remarkable recovery in the second half of 2014, especially during holiday seasons in the beach resorts,” said Christian Muhr, vice-president of Egypt operations for Hilton Hotels, which owns 18 properties across the country. “The forecasts for 2015 are promising as well.”
The tourists are returning despite continued political tensions and the emergence of an affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, in the northern Sinai peninsula. European countries including Italy, Belgium and Germany, the second-largest market for Egyptian tourism after Russia, have lifted or eased travel advisories, giving the green light to tour operators and travel agencies to begin marketing the land of the pharaohs to customers.
“We came here because of the terrible weather in the UK and we thought that Egypt will be quiet now without so many tourists and crowds,” said UK-based Tim Brooke as he emerged from Cairo’s Egyptian Museum – the world-famous repository of Egyptian antiquities – amid a small crowd of North American, European and Asian tourists.
“The stay has been good so far. We’re feeling safe. There is lots of security everywhere.”
The bulk of the growth in visitor numbers has been in Cairo, the scene of near constant political unrest and street clashes since a January 2011 uprising felled longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak. Hotel occupancy rates in the capital jumped from between 10 and 20 per cent a year ago to nearly 50 per cent, said Hisham Zazou, the minister of tourism.
“There is a comeback in tourism,” he told the Financial Times. “There is a perception that Egypt is embarking on a different path and a period of stability will start to be recognised.”
Bright Sky Travel, a Cairo tour operator, reported it is conducting about 300 to 400 tours of the capital a month compared with 150 during the same period last year. “Now we’re going back to the old numbers before the revolution,” said Mustafa Sharawy, a tour guide.
Analysts confirm the trend. “We are still below 2010, but these are by far the best numbers we have seen since 2011,” said Mohamed Abou Basha, an economist at EFG-Hermes, Egypt’s leading investment bank.
“The interesting development and improvement is Cairo. Most of the last four years Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada [the Red Sea resort city] were doing relatively fine, but Cairo was doing really poorly. This time the improvement really is Cairo.”
If the improvement can be sustained, Capital Economics, the UK-based consultancy, estimates that it might generate an additional $3.3bn, or 1.2 per cent of gross domestic product, over the next year. “Rising tourist arrivals will provide much-needed foreign currency to the economy,” it said in a report last week.
Tourism figures have rebounded before. Numbers briefly increased after parliamentary elections in early 2012 and again in early 2013 after the election of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi. Months later Mr Morsi was toppled in a coup that ignited deadly clashes in Cairo and other parts of the country.
But following the consolidation of power by president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in elections last May, many analysts and diplomats see a period of relative stability enforced by security forces and aided by widespread weariness with political turmoil. “Right after the presidential elections the situation started to shift,” said Mr Zazou.
Mr Zazou said his ministry had launched “tactical” marketing campaigns to lure back visitors from the Arabian Peninsula who traditionally enjoy the relatively laid back culture of the capital. Campaigns in the UK, Italy, Germany and Russia are aimed at tourists seeking the sun at the country’s Red Sea resorts.
A number of countries still warn about travel to Egypt, particularly in light of a rise of attacks by al-Qaeda offshoots, mostly against security forces. “Attacks targeting foreigners in tourist resorts and elsewhere can’t be ruled out,” said the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office website.
But the government is doing its best to downplay any risks to visitors. Mr Sisi himself met with international tour operators over the summer, the first such meeting involving a sitting Egyptian president.
“You have to send the right message,” Mr Zazou said. “There is a some political violence here and there but the tourist areas are under constant protection.”|