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Hoteliers build their hopes on Egypt

Major hotel operators are pushing ahead with plans to expand in Egypt, despite disruption to a number of projects and the decline in the tourism industry caused by political and social upheaval.

Major hotel operators are pushing ahead with plans to expand in Egypt, despite disruption to a number of projects and the decline in the tourism industry caused by political and social upheaval.

"We think there's tremendous scope," said Neil George, the vice president of acquisitions and development, Middle East and Africa, for Starwood Hotels and Resorts, which has brands including Le Meridien and Sheraton. The company believes that there are further opportunities for it to open more hotels in areas including Sharm El Sheikh, Hurghada and Cairo.

Egypt "will always remain a massive tourist destination just because of what it has to offer. We're waiting for everything to come back to normal, so we can get going back in that country again", Mr George said.

Tourism made up 11.3 per cent of Egypt's economy in 2010. Last year, there was a 33 per cent decline to 9.8 million tourists, according to official statistics. Revenue from tourism, which reached US$12.5 billion (Dh45.91bn) in 2010, fell to $8.8bn last year.

Although it is still significantly off its peaks, there has been an improvement in Egyptian tourism, led by the resorts on the Red Sea. The number of tourists visiting Egypt increased by 32 per cent in the first quarter compared with the same period last year, according to data from the Egyptian Tourist Authority.

There are hopes that stability will return soon after the presidential election.

Starwood has a St Regis hotel being developed along the Nile as part of a $1bn project owned by Qatari Diar. But the pace of the development has slowed because of the political situation.

"It is slow," said Mr George. "When there's a revolution in the country, things take a different priority. But it's going ahead. It'll happen. It's just taking a bit longer than we thought because no one could have foreseen what was going to happen."

He said that Starwood also had Le Meridien under construction at the airport, a project that had also slowed, but was still expected to be finished in about a year.

"People who have invested in Egypt aren't just going to run away. They're just going to wait for things to return to normal and then get back in there and continue where they left off," said Mr George. "Most of the deals that we were working on went on hold. The signed ones are all still there. They just haven't progressed. The ones we were in discussions about, they're now starting to come back and talk to us about things." Fairmont, meanwhile, has restarted talks to open a resort in Sharm El Sheikh as part of a $1.2bn development.

"We're moving forwards," said Frank Naboulsi, a vice president and the general manager of Fairmont Nile City Hotel in Cairo.

Hilton Worldwide hopes to open a delayed hotel in Makadi Bay, near Hurghada, towards the end of next year. It also has a hotel under development in Heliopolis in Cairo.

"While in 2011 there was a revolution, Hilton was still very committed to the market," said Christian Grage, the vice president of operations for Egypt and Levant at Hilton Worldwide. "In 2011, we opened a resort in the south of Egypt in Marsa Alam, around summer. We also rebranded and took over the Zamalek residences as a Hilton earlier that year as well. That was in Cairo."

He said Hilton was keen on other opportunities in Egypt. "There's quite a few more that we're looking at at this point of time. Whether it is within the city, or in resort areas, we are very open-minded because we really believe in this market."

rbundhun@thenational.ae

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