Sunday, 15 January 2012

Egypt tourism ponders effect of Muslim Brotherhood's ascent

Egypt tourism ponders effect of Muslim Brotherhood's ascent

By Michelle Baran
KarnakEgyptOpsThe Muslim Brotherhood’s significant gains in the final phase of Egypt’s parliamentary elections this week left many in the industry anxious about how the group’s sectarian impulses would affect the country’s social mores and, as a result, its allure as a tourism destination.

Last month, news reports surfaced of a Muslim Brotherhood candidate’s vision for tourism in which tourists would not be allowed to drink alcohol or wear bikinis.

While it was an offhand remark, the comments brought to light questions about how tourism policy might be altered by a sectarian government in a country that will rely heavily on travel and tourism to push economic recovery following debilitating setbacks in 2011.

“The tourism industry in Egypt, directly and indirectly, is responsible for one in eight jobs,” said Amr Badr, managing director of Egypt and the Middle East for Abercrombie & Kent.

“It is easy for candidates to make these statements on a theoretical basis, but if there are attempts to change legislation and regulations, they will certainly be met with resistance, as such suggestions are simply not realistic for a country in which tourism is such a fundamental pillar of the economy.”

Egypt’s tourist industry took a major hit in 2011 in the wake of the at-times violent and deadly revolution that began Jan. 25, which resulted in the ouster of longtime president Hosni Mubarak.

The country welcomed about 54% fewer U.S. tourists last year than in 2010, Mohamed Hegazy, acting director of the Egyptian Tourist Authority in New York, said in a phone interview from Cairo last week.

Hegazy pointed to nearby Turkey as an example of a Muslim country that is able to maintain a successful tourism industry.

Asked if the likely dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt’s newly forming government would have an impact on tourism, Hegazy responded, “I don’t think so, because business is business, and the economy is the economy. Tourism is one of the main factors in the Egypt economy. It represents 11.5% of the Egyptian income. So, I don’t think so.”

Meanwhile, Egypt’s once-thriving tourism industry is attempting to rebuild itself in 2012. But the ongoing political uncertainty as Egyptians head to the polls to elect a new government — a process that will last at least into June, when the presidential elections are slated to take place — continues to make the destination a difficult sell for some.

“Interest in travel to Egypt continues to be disappointing with the backdrop of news in the media,” said Jerre Fuqua, president of Travcoa. “However, travelers returning from Egypt report high regard for the destination and their feelings of safety.”

Abercrombie & Kent, meanwhile, is starting to see a return to pre-2011 booking patterns.

“Last week, Abercrombie & Kent passenger numbers for 2012 exceeded the forward bookings we had at this time last year for travel in 2011,” said Pamela Lassers, director of media relations for Abercrombie & Kent USA. “We are continuing to add guaranteed small-group escorted departures to accommodate the growing interest in travel to Egypt.”