Egypt Tourism Takes a Hit from Prophet Protests

FE_DA_0913usembassy.jpg
Associated Press SHARE

By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA, Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) — One of the world's largest cruise ships, its foreign passengers primed for onshore spending, was supposed to dock in Egypt this month. The port call, however, was scrapped because of security concerns surrounding Mideast protests against a film made in the U.S. that denounces Islam's holiest figure.

Once again, Egyptian tourism, an engine of the national economy and a flagship of the regional industry, has taken a hit. It was another setback for a business that had plummeted in parts of the Middle East and North Africa last year during the uprisings known as the Arab Spring, then moved toward recovery this year.

[PHOTOS: Film Maker Nakoula Basseley Nakoula Remains a Mystery.]

"Small things become like mountains," Essam Zeid, an Egyptian tour guide, said of the fallout from unrest in Egypt since authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011. But he also offered a (somewhat) positive metaphor: "We always say that Egypt gets sick but never dies. Recovery is always an option."

Egypt and other Arab nations undergoing turmoil rely heavily on the labor-intensive trade and see it as key to economic growth and social stability.

Tourism directly contributes a big chunk of gross domestic product to some of the countries that suffered economic fallout from last year's tumult, which came not long after the global financial crisis. Egypt, for example, generates 6.7 percent of GDP from travel and tourism and Tunisia is around the same level with 6.6 percent, with benefits to related businesses pushing the figures even higher, according to the London-based World Tourism and Travel Council. It is among industry groups that will assess the impact from the latest upheaval, though it is too early for a comprehensive estimate of losses.

In the multi-layered Middle East, a setback for tourism in one area can mean a windfall in another. During the Arab Spring, tourists, many of them Arabs, turned away from countries in crisis and traveled to more stable places like Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, said Sana Toukan, Middle East research manager for Euromonitor International, a market research group. The UAE also drew more Chinese visitors, according to Toukan.

The latest downturn followed demonstrations in Egypt against an online film that was produced by a U.S. citizen originally from Egypt and denigrates the Prophet Muhammad. They were part of a wider explosion of anger in Muslim countries. The unrest hit near the U.S. Embassy, far from the pyramids of Giza on Cairo's outskirts, and even farther from gated Red Sea resorts, cocoons for the beach-bound vacationer.

Yet the online or TV images of flames, barricades and whooping demonstrators were a killjoy for anyone planning a getaway, even though the protests have subsided in many places. Tour guides in Egypt say tourist bookings are mostly holding, but they worry about a drop-off early next year as people tend to plan several months ahead.

[PHOTOS: U.S. Ambassador Killed as Consulate Attacks Target Libya, Egypt.]

Tharwat Agami, head of the chamber of tourist agencies in Luxor, home to the Valley of the Kings tombs in southern Egypt, reported up to one-quarter of tourist cancellations through October. His own company guided 17 American tourists last week, half of the group's expected number.

Royal Caribbean International took no chances. One of its vessels, Mariner of the Seas, can carry more than 3,000 passengers. It left Italy, on Sept. 15 — with regional tension still boiling over the film — and was to call at Alexandria on the northern Egypt Mediterranean coast three days later.

The company canceled the layover "in an abundance of caution," said Cynthia Martinez, director of global corporate communications at Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd.

"Royal Caribbean International continues to closely monitor the situation in Egypt," Martinez wrote in an email Tuesday to The Associated Press. "At this time, Royal Caribbean has not changed the itinerary of any upcoming sailing that includes a port call to Egypt."