Published December 28, 2012
Young men descend on any car with foreigners in it, blocking them before they reach the more than 4,500 year-old Wonder of the World. They bang on car doors and bonnets, some waving sticks and whips they use for driving camels, demanding the tourists come to their shop or ride their camel, or just give money.
In the southern city of Aswan, tour operator Ashraf Ibrahim is taking a group to a historic mosque when a mob of angry horse carriage drivers trap them inside, trying to force them to take rides. The drivers tell Ibrahim to steer business their way in the future or else they will burn his tourist buses, he says.
Egypt’s touts have always been aggressive – but they’re more desperate than ever after nearly two years of devastation in the tourism industry, a pillar of the economy.
December, traditionally the start of Egypt’s peak season, has brought new pain. Many foreigners stayed away in 2012 because of the televised scenes of protests and clashes on the streets of Cairo in the battle over a controversial constitution. Arrivals in December were down 40% from November, according to airport officials.
Tourism workers have little hope that things will get better now that the constitution has come into effect after a nationwide referendum. The power struggle between Islamist President Mohammed Mursi and the opposition threatens to erupt at any time into more unrest in the streets.
In the longer term, many in the industry worry that the ruling Islamists will start making changes such as banning alcohol or swimsuits on beaches that they fear will drive tourists away.
“Nobody can plan anything because one day you find that everything might be OK and another that everything is lost. You can’t even take a right decision or plan for the next month,” says Magda Fawzi, who is head of Sabena Management. She is thinking of shutting her company, which runs two hotels in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh and four luxury cruise boats on the Nile between the ancient cities of Luxor and Aswan.
In one hotel, only 10 of 300 rooms are booked, and only one of her ships is operating, she says. She has already downsized from 850 employees before the revolution to 500.
“I don’t think there will be any stability with this kind of constitution. People will not accept it,” she says.
Tourism, one of Egypt’s biggest foreign currency earners, was gutted by the turmoil of 2011’s 18-day uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.
in 2012, the industry struggled back. By the end of September, 8.1 million tourists had come, injecting US$10 billion into the economy. The number for the full year is likely to surpass that of 2011 but is still considerably down from pre-revolt 2010.