Drop in Tourism Adds to Egypt's Economic Woes

19 May 2009

Tourists visit Great Pyramids of Giza, south of Cairo 23 Feb 2009
Tourists visit Great Pyramids of Giza, south of Cairo, 23 Feb 2009
A slump in tourism is aggravating Egypt's economic woes and affecting the lives of those who depend on the industry for a living. About 20 percent of Egypt's foreign currency earnings come from tourism. In 2008, almost 13 million foreign tourists visited Egypt, taking in its pharaonic and Islamic sites along the River Nile. But now, the drop in revenue is hitting the country hard.

Empty tour boats line the River Nile, as boat captains desperately solicit passengers from the meager crowd of tourists strolling along the riverfront walkway in downtown Cairo.

The global economic crisis, which began last year, is causing a serious slump in the tourism industry. Tourism is a main source foreign currency earnings, along with revenue from the Suez Canal and remittances from Egyptian workers abroad.

Paul, a tourist from Manchester, England, says the global crisis, as well as a vague threat of terrorism, is making tourists like him think twice before traveling abroad.

"We're only getting eight Egyptian pounds to the English pound; last year it was 10," he noted. "And I think the credit crunch is really biting, plus the terrorism threat, as well."

Drop in tourists has domino effect

At the nearby Egyptian museum, tourists are still congregating in the front garden. But a thick cluster of empty-handed tour guides speaks more eloquently than statistics.

The trickle of tourists has some guides working, but economists say an 18 percent drop in the number of foreigners coming to Egypt, thus far in 2009, has hotels, tour operators, and even shop owners complaining.

Egypt's minister of tourism, Zoheir Garana, explains just how much tourism represents to the Egyptian economy.

"Twelve-point-six percent of our total work force directly and indirectly works in the travel industry and from every $100 that's generated to Egypt the tourism or travel industry share is $19.30," Garana explained.

Tourism officials worried

Garana concedes that many in the tourism profession are worried, but says that the travel industry has weathered downturns before, and will weather them this time, as well.

At Cairo's famed Khan al-Khalili market, streets and alleyways look deserted, with vendors furiously hawking their wares to make a living.

Once bustling sidewalk cafes are half empty and merchants sit idly in front of their storefronts waiting for the providential tourist to appear.

Souvenir shop owner feels crunch

Ihab, a thirty-something social worker who runs a souvenir shop, negotiates valiantly with two American tourists who are haggling for a bargain.

He gripes that tourists have become so savvy at bargaining that he can barely make a profit on the few items he sells.

"Now, all the people: hello, come here ?I'm just looking, I'm just looking," he said.

Ihab explains that for him, like other Egyptians who rely on foreign visitors to earn a living, the slump in tourism is making life difficult.

"If I work one week without profit, how I live? I'm not bring something good for food. I'm not find money for my clothes, for my wife, for my home," he explained.

Ihab says that the Egyptian economy at large is in recession, and that finding a job in any field, has become difficult.

"I haven't job ... more difficult ... and here in Egyptian now, impossible, you can't find job usually," he said.

Hope for turn-around

Tourism Minister Garana notes, optimistically, that the government is investing in infrastructure projects during the current slump to come out stronger, afterwards.

Despite the optimism, no one is quite sure where the Egyptian economy is heading, when the global crisis will end, and how soon tourism will rebound. Like the ancient Egyptian feluqa floating down the Nile into the sunset, no one can see what lies beyond the horizon.