| ||When Thomas Cook first took tourists to the pyramids in 1869, getting them across Egypt’s borders required little prior arrangement – a status quo that remained the norm for nearly a century and a half.
But 146 years later, easy access for some sightseers may finally have ended: Egypt has announced individual tourists will no longer be able to buy visas on arrival, in an unexpected move that could further harm the country’s already decimated tourism industry. From 15 May, those travelling to Egypt without a package tour company will have to apply for permission in advance – potentially putting off the kind of visitors who form, in boom years, up to a quarter of the Egyptian tourism market.
Tourism experts have questioned the timing of the decision, days after a much-hyped economic conference in which Egypt tried to present itself as open for business after four years of political upheaval sparked by the 2011 revolution. Tourism revenues fell to £3.6bn in 2013, down from £7.7bn in 2010, and are still struggling to pick up.
“I don’t understand the timing, and I need it to be solved, to be very honest,” said Elhamy Elzayat, the chairman of the Egyptian Tourism Federation, a network of travel agents. “It will have an effect. How much, we don’t know – but for me personally it will affect me more than others because I work mostly with individuals.”
Coral under the Red sea at Sharm el-Sheikh. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Coral under the Red sea at Sharm el-Sheikh. Photograph: Richard Whitcombe/Alamy
The decision to make it harder for individual travellers was taken after months of deliberations by security officials, in an attempt to weed out both incoming militants and, one source told Reuters, rights activists critical of Egypt’s widespread crackdown on dissent.
The Egyptian tourism ministry downplayed the impact of the change. The ministry’s media adviser, Rasha el-Azaizy, said: “I don’t believe it will be have a bad effect because most tourists come in groups.”
But Egypt’s former tourism minister, Hisham Zaazou, who left office earlier this month, acknowledged there would be a fallout. “No doubt, it will have an effect,” said Zaazou. “Pre-2011, 25% of tourists were individual tourists. After the revolution it went down, and now it is somewhere between 15 and 20%. So you’re speaking about 2 million people. It’s a big size.”
Zaazou said the effect might be felt both in the Gulf, where he said tourists often leave at the last minute, and in the west, where many potential tourists live far from the nearest Egyptian consulate.
“America is a very big country, it’s like a continent and you have a very limited number of consulates,” said Zaazou. “So it might have a big effect there.”
British travel company Discover Egypt said while it had no definitive information from Egyptian officials, it did not expect the news to particularly change the way they work. As a tour operator with 20 years’ experience in Egypt, it already passes their clients’ passport details to airlines. To give this information to the Egyptian government requires just one more step, and mirrors a process taken by other countries in the region, including Jordan.
“It will affect individuals who are not coming through a tour organiser – if you’re a backpacker, or a businessman,” said Philip Breckner, the company’s head. “But none of my clients will be affected.”|