Following well-documented turmoil in the country, Egyptian tourism is heating up again, writes Graham Newton.
Egyptian landmarks recently welcomed the unlikely duo of the world’s tallest man and the world’s shortest woman.
This atypical pairing was invited by the Egyptian Council for Tourism Promotion to visit the most famous sites to boost the country’s ailing tourism sector. A series of terror attacks and political tension have left once popular resorts and destinations deserted. From a high of close to 15 million tourists in 2010, numbers dropped alarmingly to a little more than 5 million visits in 2016.
There have been numerous incidents related to terrorism but arguably the one with the greatest impact was the downing of a Russian passenger plane from Sharm el Sheikh to St Petersburg in October 2015. The aircraft crashed in North Sinai with the loss of 224 people. The formal investigation by Egyptian and Russian authorities has yet to deliver its verdict but many experts were swift in stating that the crash was caused by an explosive device onboard.
Direct Russian flights to Egypt were suspended, with several other countries soon following suit, amid fears over the security at the country’s airports. Sharm el Sheikh’s hotel rooms have stood largely empty ever since and there was a real fear of the lights being turned out for the last time.
According to OAG, 1.5 million seats were available between Russia and Egypt when the suspension took effect. Aeroflot, Ural Airlines and the now defunct Transaero Airlines were among the carriers operating.
But all is not lost. In December 2017, Russia finally announced a planned resumption of direct services. Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov and Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Sharif Fathi signed a cooperation agreement that has paved the way for Aeroflot and EgyptAir to resume flights between Cairo and Moscow in an initial phase. No date has been set for the resumption of direct flights to resort areas.
Egypt has implemented tighter security measures at all its airports and visits by Russian security approved the progress being made. Most other countries are also satisfied and have also resumed direct flights or have plans for doing so.
There is, however, one notable exception. The UK is yet to announce direct flights to Sharm el Sheikh can begin again. It is a significant hold-out, because, alongside Russia, the country was one of the largest sources of tourists for Egypt. Close to one million people visitors travelled from the UK to Egypt at the peak, a number that fell to less than 200,000. Sharm el Sheikh, with its picturesque location and the allure of the Red Sea, was one of the most popular destinations.
In December 2017, a minister in the UK’s Department of Transport, John Hayes, said that “there is a wider range of security-related reasons... we do not yet feel that we should resume flights”.
The UK representative of the Egyptian State Tourist Authority believes, however, that the news about the Russian return should push the British authorities to resolve any issues.
Amr El-Ezabi, director UK and Ireland for the Egyptian State Tourist Authority, said that flights between Egypt and Russia are “a clear sign of the confidence that the Russian government has in the aviation and airport security standards that Egypt has introduced. We hope this will encourage flights back to Sharm el Sheikh from the UK so that travellers can return to the destination”.
The latest from Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office is that it will “continue working with the Egyptian authorities to enable regular flights between the UK and Sharm el Sheikh to resume”. It is also “liaising with travel companies so they are able to resume flights and holidays in Sharm el Sheikh as soon as appropriate security arrangements are in place”.
Whatever or whenever the UK’s decision, Egyptian tourism is already resurfacing. Perhaps suggesting the shape of future markets, Asian visitors stepped in where European tourists feared to tread. Aswan, Cairo and Luxor are all popular destinations with their plethora of world-renowned attractions.
China International Travel Service reported a 58% increase in Chinese outbound travel to Egypt in 2016 compared with 2015, while Japan’s HIS travel agency said there was a four or five-fold increase in Japanese visitors to Egypt.
There are new attractions to draw visitors too. The Giza Plateau is being revamped to accommodate the Grand Egyptian Museum, or Giza Museum.
It is due to at least partially open in 2018 and will house a number of priceless Egyptian artefacts. Planned as the largest archaeological museum in the world, it will exhibit the full Tutankhamun collection with many pieces on display for the first time.
Hurghada, another Red Sea resort, has also boomed in popularity with excellent year-round temperatures and a host of water sports. This is despite a series of attacks there, including one in July 2017 that killed two tourists.
Hurghada International Airport is now the second busiest in Egypt after Cairo and can handle up to 13 million passengers per annum. A new terminal was finished in 2015 at a cost of $335 million and has facilitated an ever-greater choice of direct connections, with most of the major North European cities enjoying services.
Marsa Alam, which is served by its own international airport, is another resort growing into the void left by Sharm el Sheikh.
Overall, Egyptian tourism figures for the first seven months of 2017 show a 54% increase in tourist numbers over the corresponding 2016 period. Importantly these visitors added $3.5 billion to government coffers, a 170% jump on the previous year. For a country so dependent on tourism spend, it is welcome news.
The expectation is for 2017 as a whole to show eight million visitors and $6 billion in tourism revenues. In fact, the World Tourism Organization ranked Egypt as the second-fastest growing tourist destination of 2017.
There is a long way to go for Egypt to recapture its former glory, of course. The present eight million visitors is still some way off the near-15 million visitors peak. Terrorism is still rife, most notably in the North Sinai region, and a nationwide State of Emergency was extended for another three months in January 2018, meaning the government is free to impose a curfew or close down restaurants and hotels.
However, with Hilton Worldwide’s vice president for North Africa, Mohab Ghali, recently telling Reuters the company plans a 40% increase in the number of hotel rooms it manages in Egypt by 2022, it seems country’s tourism sector is moving in the right direction.
In many ways, EgyptAir’s fortunes tracks that of its home country’s tourism industry. It has suffered its fair share of incidents but has a fundamental strength that keeps a catastrophic collapse at bay.
In March 2016, a domestic EgyptAir flight was hijacked and forced to land at Larnaca in Cyprus where everyone was released, and the perpetrator arrested. Just two months later, EgyptAir flight 804 crashed into the Mediterranean Sea. The cause has not yet been confirmed with speculation running the gamut from a bomb to a pilot’s malfunctioning mobile phone to a fire in the avionics bay.
Even so, EgyptAir is looking ahead and has a lease agreement for 15 Airbus A320neos and six Boeing 787s with AerCap. It flies to some 75 destinations and was Africa’s most punctual airline in 2017 according to OAG.
Meanwhile, regional subsidiary EgyptAir Express is looking forward to the delivery of 12 Bombardier CS300s, which will make a number of international destinations attractive from its Sharm el Sheikh base, including southern European cities.
Low-cost carrier Air Cairo – in which EgyptAir has a 60% stake – already has a firm hold in Italy. It recently began a Sharm el Sheikh-Naples route to add to a Milan service. Rome and Bari are also on the summer 2018 schedule. It is anticipated the flights will provide a near-doubling of Italian tourism to Egypt in 2018.
Air Cairo flew 1.3 million passengers in 2017 and also serves destinations in a number of other European countries, including France, Germany, Norway, Poland, Sweden, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands.