Egypt turns on charm to woo visitors
BERLIN // A giant replica of the golden mask of Tutankhamun was watching over Egypt's bid to revive its crucial, flagging tourism business at the world's largest travel trade fair this week in Berlin.
The country set up a bazaar in an exhibition hall offering culinary delicacies and handicrafts, and dancers from the Cairo Opera House gave a colourful ballet performance to symbolise Egypt's rebirth after the revolution last year. Posters under the slogan "Where It All Begins" have been put up across the German capital for the exhibition.
Egypt and other countries in North Africa and the Middle East swept up in the Arab Spring are displaying their charms at the ITB Berlin fair to woo back visitors scared off by the upheaval.
"Each and every tourist who comes to Egypt is in fact supporting democracy and human rights and we need it," Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, the Egyptian tourism minister, said in a speech at the opening of the show, which runs to Sunday and has some 11,000 exhibitors from more than 180 countries.
Egypt is the official partner nation of the ITB show this year and is stressing that despite the unrest, it is a safer place to visit than most countries in Latin America.
There is a sense of cautious optimism that tourism - one of the economic pillars of Egypt and Tunisia - is beginning to recover, with tour operators reporting increased bookings and Taleb Rifai, the head of the World Tourism Organisation, painting a determinedly rosy picture.
He predicted on Wednesday that Egypt would have almost as many tourists by the end of this year as it did before the revolution.
"The situation isn't the same everywhere in the country," Mr Rifai told Die Welt, a German newspaper.
"The holiday resorts on the Red Sea and the Mediterranean are working almost normally, the usual tour groups are gradually returning, especially the Russians, an important market for Egypt.
"Politically, everything is still fluid but one thing is clear: no government in Egypt will put the jobs and the opportunities offered by tourism at risk."
Tourism in Egypt was hit hard by the Arab Spring. A record 15 million tourists visited it in 2010, on a par with Thailand. But visitor numbers fell by a third to 10 million last year, with turnover falling to US$9 billion (Dh33.05bn) from $12.5bn, according to Egyptian government figures. The usual crowds thronging the pyramids of Giza have gone, camel drivers sit waiting for tourists, and five-star hotels are struggling with vacancies.
One in six jobs in Egypt depends on tourism, which accounts for almost 12 per cent of GDP. Periodic riots are hampering the recovery of the sector, as are reports of rising crime and kidnappings, and occasional demands in parliament for bans on alcohol.
Tunisia, too, is trying to rebuild its tourism industry, on which it relies for much of its revenue. The German travel association DRK said bookings to Tunisia plummeted by 40 per cent last year but were now growing strongly again.
The number of international tourists arriving at North African destinations dropped by 12 per cent to 16.4 million last year, and in the whole Middle East visitor numbers declined by 8 per cent to 55.4 million, according to the World Tourism Organisation.
The politically stable Gulf states such as Oman, Qatar and the UAE have benefited from the unrest elsewhere and enjoyed strong increases last year, as have sunny European countries suffering in the euro crisis, such as Greece, Spain and Portugal.
Dubai's hotels recorded a 10 per cent increase in the number of tourists last year to 9.3 million, the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, the emirate's tourism regulatory body, said last week.
In Jordan and Lebanon visitor numbers have fallen, mainly because they border Syria, said Mr Rifai.
Opening the ITB fair on Tuesday, Philipp Rosler, the German economy minister, said it was "absurd, wrong and damaging" to call on tourists to boycott Egypt as a result of the recent unrest.
"Tourism is a very important economic pillar for Egypt. The country has been firmly established in international tourism for years," said Mr Rosler, adding that Egypt needed economic growth to give young people job prospects and help the democracy movement to succeed.
Mr Nour described Egypt's invitation to be guest of honour at the fair as a "milestone".
"It's a new beginning at the right time after 2011 which was a turning point.
"The road will be long and sometimes bumpy but we are confident," he said.
"We are seeing some positive signs."
Updated: March 9, 2012 04:00 AM