November 3, 2002
Egypt Shores Up Security, and Tourism Slowly Recovers
By DANIEL J. WAKIN
UXOR, Egypt, Oct. 31 — A pair of stone lions that guarded the temple of Queen Hatshepsut some 3,500 years ago are long gone, replaced by police officers in everyday clothes who tote compact machine guns inside their cheap suit jackets.
It is five years since the massacre of 58 tourists and 4 Egyptians by Islamic militants at the temple, an attack that virtually shut down tourism in Egypt. But a police crackdown and a security regimen have proved so tough — even sugar cane fields must be set back from roads to deny cover — that the tourists have come back.
Tourism accounts for 12 percent of the economy, and 1 in 7 jobs, according to the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt. But of late it is a decidedly unstable industry, wracked by the Sept. 11 attacks, jitters over Iraq and the violence in Israel and the West Bank, as well as economic troubles around the world.
"When you open today any magazine or TV program, the only thing you hear is Bush saying, 'We want to hit Iraq,'" said Roger Tabet, managing director of Orascom Hotels Holding, which owns hotels at El Gouna, on the Red Sea coast. "If you take an average guy in Germany drinking his beer, or in England, what will he think? He will say, 'I will not stay in a country that's a neighbor of Israel, secondly an Islamic country and third, people are thinking Iraq is next door!'"
In 2000, 5.4 million people visited Egypt and accounted for $4.3 billion in revenues. A year later, jarred by the terror attacks in the United States and the war in Afghanistan, visitors fell to 4.7 million and revenues to $3.8 million, according to the Tourism Ministry.
Visits by Americans have plunged, while more Arabs are trading Egypt for the United States, where they fear harassment because of an anti-Arab backlash. Fewer visitors are going to the historic sites like Luxor, but Red Sea beach resorts are doing well, though stays are short.
At the 133-year-old Mena House Oberoi near the Pyramids of Giza, only 5 percent of the guests are American, said Rajiv Kaul, the general manager, who is offering perks like guaranteed Pyramid views, late checkouts and free extra nights to attract guests. He said the killing last week in Jordan of the American diplomat Laurence Foley caused a medical company to move its conference from Amman to the Mena House.
In many ways, Luxor is typical. It looks as though it is booming. Tour boats glide up the Nile along with feluccas as groups of Russians, Germans, Italians and Japanese crowd the temples.
But people in the industry are worried. "I have no other work without this," said Michel, 62, a tour guide who only gave his first name and has been toiling under the sun for 28 years. "Without this, I am useless. I am broken."
Some estimates say that up to 80 percent of the population in Luxor and its environs depends on foreign visitors. They include hotel employees, boat pilots, ticket takers or the villagers who help produce the endless supply of alabaster and granite bowls, Nefertiti heads and cats, and who earn $4.40 to $6.50 a day, about the cost of a ticket to the monuments.
Sherif Morgan lost his business at a Red Sea resort after the Sept. 11 attacks. He came back home to Luxor and found a job at a trinkets shop on the main street, where the owners valued his garrulous English and bonhomie with tourists. But nobody was buying, he said. They are aloof, perhaps out of fear. "They are here, but don't want to have contact with Egyptians," he said.
A brief survey of hotels showed that most were about three-quarters full, although the historic Winter Palace, whose guests have included Agatha Christie and Noël Coward, was fully booked. That is not bad for the beginning of the season, which runs until April. But nearly all here complain that too many people are coming for too brief a time.
For now, the government crackdown has crushed the Islamist threat, which also was hurt by popular resentment among the local people who lost their jobs and revulsion at the attack on Nov. 17, 1997, when six attackers shot and stabbed mainly Swiss, British and Japanese victims in a 45-minute rampage. The attack prefigured the bombing on Oct. 12 in Bali, which struck at the tourist lifeblood of Indonesia.
Corporate groups are also putting Egyptian travel on hold. Elhamy ElZayat, chairman of Emeco Travel, a major company that handles mostly corporate tours and conferences, said he expected that out of 110 requests for tours next year, only 10 would pan out. He noted that the trend was for individuals to make travel plans at the last minute, so the gap could be filled.
At Luxor, security is less visible these days than it was six months ago, but checkpoints remain at important intersections and Interior Ministry guards in black berets can be seen standing behind rolling metal shields along the road. A police post is visible atop the tawny limestone hill from which the Hatshepsut temple was carved. Tourists must pass through metal detectors at most monuments.
"We see security has been imposed," said Jana Haut, 34, of Kassel, Germany, who said she had no qualms about visiting. "There's more hesitation about flying to the U.S.A. There's anthrax, there's the towers and now the Washington sniper."