Egypt Tourism Takes a Hit from Prophet Protests

Associated Press + More

Cruise ships also stayed away during the turmoil that led to Mubarak's downfall. Usually, passengers board buses for a day's outing to Cairo, where the pyramids, the medieval citadel, the mummies of the Egyptian Museum and other treasures await. It's a windfall for guides, ticket vendors and souvenir shops.

Egyptian tourism revenues fell 30 percent to $9 billion in 2011, but the industry proved as resilient as it is vulnerable. It survived the killing of 62 people, mostly foreign tourists, by Islamic militants in a 1997 attack at Luxor that seemed aimed at weakening the government by stopping the flow of tourism revenue. The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks by al-Qaida pummeled tourism, as did 2005 bombings in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh.

Fueled partly by oil income, Mideast tourism is more diverse and reliant on regional customers. Expatriates and tourists splurge in the glitzy city-state of Dubai in the Persian Gulf; religious tourism is big at Islamic sites in Saudi Arabia; Oman and Jordan are angling for a piece of the medical tourism market. The popular uprisings did not affect Turkey but diverted tourist traffic to the country, now rated sixth in the world in international tourist arrivals.

Tourism prospects are a moot point in Syria, which is embroiled in a civil war, and in still-chaotic Libya, where militias roam. The U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed on Sept. 11 in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi in an attack on the American consulate there.

In Tunisia, violence and looting around the U.S. Embassy during a protest against the anti-Islam film did no favors for a tourism campaign that had been titled, "All Dreams are Possible."

"It's not one picture when you look at the Middle East," said Sandra Carvao, Madrid-based communications coordinator at the World Tourism Organization, a U.N. agency. "It's a region that has suffered and has proven to bounce back in the past."

Indeed, the agency had deemed the Middle East to be the fastest growing tourism market in the world over the past decade, despite the Iraq war, the 2006 conflict between Israel and Lebanon's Hezbollah and other violence. While some Gulf airlines have gone bankrupt, Carvao compared the expansion of Emirates and Etihad Airways to the rate of growth of Asia's aviation leaders.

Amid upheaval and political transition in 2011, according to the agency, international tourist arrivals in the Middle East dropped seven percent to 55.7 million, and in North Africa by nine percent to 17 million. So far this year, the numbers have climbed by nearly one percent and 10.5 percent, respectively.

Gladys Haddad, a tour guide in Cairo, said she was pleased that Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi, appealed to Italians to visit Egypt when he was in Rome at the height of tension over the anti-Islam film. She said early concerns that Egypt's Islamist-dominated government might scare off tourists by banning alcohol or mixed beaches have waned, at least for now.

"I don't think they're going to have like a magic stick to do things right away" to improve tourism, Zeid, the guide who is quick with a metaphor, said of Egypt's fledgling government. "We can't really evaluate their work right now. They have lots of other issues on their agenda."

One thing in their favor, immeasurably, is what lies in Egyptian sands. In its bid to revive tourism, the government this month reopened the Serapeum of Saqqara, a subterranean necropolis where bulls were believed to have been buried in giant sarcophagi. The site was closed for a decade for renovation.

One tourist who marveled at Egypt's heritage was Herodotus, the ancient Greek who wrote about Egyptian beliefs and customs, based on what he said he had observed.

According to a 19th century translation by a British scholar, he wrote: "Concerning Egypt itself, I shall extend my remarks to a great length, because there is no country that possesses so many wonders, nor any that has such a number of works which defy description."