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On Egyptian tour guides' itinerary today? Nothing

Tourism was the industry hit hardest by the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak.

June 07, 2011|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
  • Tour guide Hany Ibrahim, right, sees only about 20% of the people he normally would at Cairo's Egyptian Museum. It's been months since the revolution that ousted Egypt's president, but the tourism industry has yet to recover.
Tour guide Hany Ibrahim, right, sees only about 20% of the people he normally… (Molly Hennessy-Fiske,…)

Reporting from Cairo — A dozen tour guides lounged in the shade of the Egyptian Museum's sculpture garden, coalescing around the few tourists. Scores more waited at home, chatting on Facebook about how long the crisis will last.

It's been months since the revolution that ousted longtime President Hosni Mubarak, yet tour guide Hany Ibrahim still sees only about 20% of the people he normally would. Business has never been this bad in his decade of working as a guide, he said, and that does not bode well for the Egyptian economy.

"Tourism is what brings money to Egypt. That, and the Suez Canal," Ibrahim said as he waited for customers. "Now foreigners and Egyptians are afraid to come here because of what they see on television."

The tourism industry is widely acknowledged to be the sector hit hardest by the economic downturn that followed Egypt's January revolution. A report last month by Giza-based CI Capital Research estimated that tourism revenue in Egypt will fall to $7.6 billion this year, down 35% from last year.

Now the industry faces a long, hot summer, typically the slow season, before the scheduled presidential election in September, with its promise of restoring stability, security and Egypt's reputation as a destination for foreign tourists.

The revolutionary protesters have largely vanished from Tahrir Square. But Cairo saw new unrest last month as conflict flared between Muslims and Coptic Christians, leaving a dozen dead and hundreds protesting downtown.

Tourists visiting King Tutankhamen's gold mask at the Egyptian Museum, the pyramids in Giza and other popular sites said they weren't worried about the unrest or the fact that the former tourism minister had been charged with corruption, but thought the news would probably keep others away.

"It's not the sort of thing that's going to improve their image," said Cedric Vandermeulen, a United Nations worker from Senegal who stopped to see the museum and buy an ice cream while passing through Cairo.

Joanna and Darrin Dixon of Philadelphia weighed whether to go ahead with their weeklong trip after the uprising began.

"We were just waiting and watching to see what would happen," Joanna, a registered nurse, said outside the museum.

"It seems pretty safe," added Darrin, a federal worker.

They said they had encountered a few restrictions because of the security situation — no visit to the camel market, which their tour guide considered risky — but mostly felt secure tromping around the pyramids and snapping photos with the Sphinx.

But their tour guide, Hisham Etman of Giza-based Jana Tours, was frustrated.

"It's dead," he said as he surveyed the museum's sparse crowd and, later, the empty paths in the sands at Giza. "This is nothing. This is 1% of what it would normally be this time of year."

Salesmen at boutiques and art galleries near the pyramids reminisced about how they used to close early when times were good, before the revolution. Now, with inflation rising, they wait for the last tourists to leave the area, said Jabar Gaber Abdul, who has been selling for 30 years.

"The owners will do OK. It's the salesmen, the people like me who live on tips, who will suffer," Abdul said as he stood in his empty shop, Tree of Life Perfume and Bazaar, where he says business is down 70% to 80%.

Those selling horse and camel rides are among the most desperate. Tariq Sayed had to sell one of his two camels so he could feed the other, a feisty white camel he calls Mickey Mouse.

"Last year we had lots of work. Now if I have one customer in a day I am lucky," he said.

Egypt's economic growth is expected to slow to just 1% this year, a sharp drop from 5.5% in the second half of 2010, according to a report released in April by the International Monetary Fund. IMF analysts blamed the high unemployment rate, growing social unrest and rising food prices for the slowdown, but predicted that the tourism industry would rebound soon.

Other analysts are more optimistic, with Cairo-based Beltone Financial forecasting that the Egyptian economy will grow 3% to 3.5%.

Sayed Elatter, 20, an aspiring tour guide from Sharkia who was visiting the Egyptian Museum as part of a training program, said he was encouraged.

"It's just a matter of time," he said as veteran guides lounged nearby, "and tourists will be back."

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Special correspondent Ahmed Shawkat contributed to this report.

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