Egypt sees tourism rebound ahead of vote

An Egyptian hotel employee stands next to suitcases at a hotel in the Red Sea resort of Hurghada. The number of visitors to Egypt was up to 8.3 million people last year. (AFP)
Updated 15 March 2018
0

Egypt sees tourism rebound ahead of vote

HURGADA, Egypt: Egypt is seeing a promising rebound in tourism following devastating jihadist attacks, in welcome news to the government of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi as he seeks re-election this month.
In the eastern Red Sea city of Hurghada, tourists lounge on sunbeds on the beach or play volleyball as boats carrying divers pass by.
Among them is Bent Skovboe from Denmark, a 77-year-old who says he has visited Egypt more than 75 times.
“If there was only Red Sea for snorkeling, I will come, but they also have pyramids in Cairo, temples in Luxor, the Nile and Aswan, and the people are very friendly,” says Skovboe, decked in a swimsuit with a cold drink in hand.
Already in decline after the toppling of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egypt’s tourism industry was dealt a devastating blow in 2015 when jihadists bombed a Russian airliner carrying holidaymakers from the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh, killing all 224 on board.
The Daesh group, which has killed hundreds of policemen and soldiers in an insurgency based mainly in North Sinai, claimed responsibility for the airline attack.
Sisi, who is running virtually unopposed in the March 26-28 election, has pledged to wipe out the jihadists, saying such attacks pose an existential threat to the state.
Talking about attacks on tourism earlier this year, Sisi said: “When I say the goal is to bring down the state, you have to know how that is done. When a certain sector is targeted, he (an attacker) knows what he’s doing.”
Daesh, now encircled in its Sinai strongholds, has pledged to redouble efforts to attack tourists and the industry is a barometer of the stability Sisi has promised to restore.
The year after the attack on the Russian airliner was “one of the worst years for tourism,” says Hisham El-Demery, the chairman of the Egyptian Tourism Promotion Board.
That year, Egypt received 5.4 million tourists, down from 14.7 million in 2010. Tourism revenue, a primary source of foreign income, fell to $3.8 billion in the fiscal year ending June 2016, down from $11.6 billion in the year ending June 2010, according to the central bank.
Last year, the number of visitors was up to 8.3 million people, according to official figures.
Travel agencies, hotel managers, and diving centers said that reservations are rising, especially in Red Sea destinations such as Hurghada and Marsa Alam.
“There’s a very large increase in reservations this year and the demand for Egypt is very robust, especially in the German market,” says Ali Okda, CEO of Travco Travel Company of Egypt, a leading local agency.
Mohamed Aboustate, general manager of Mahmya, one of Hurghada’s top attractions, said this rebound took place mainly after “tourism companies and hotels made a big effort... spending a lot on compelling advertising campaigns.”
Mahmya is a 10,000-square-meter day-resort project on Giftun island. Visitors take a boat to the island, spend the day on its beach, snorkel along its coast or scuba dive, and head back to mainland Hurghada by night.
Increasing stability has been a factor in the rebound, says Marc Zafra, head of destination management at LuxairTours, the tour operator of Luxembourg’s national carrier.
As demand rises, LuxairTours plans to double flights to Hurghada — currently one per week — by the end of March, while they already “have an increase of 250 percent compared to last year” in bookings, says Zafra.
More than 70 percent of Egypt’s tourists arrive on charter flights, run by operators such as LuxairTours, according to Demery.
“Tourism’s revival will probably continue as long as there are no large-scale terrorist incidents,” says Mostafa Kamel Al-Sayed, a political science professor at Cairo University.
In Hurghada, the Grand Plaza hotel’s occupancy rose to about 80 percent in February, up from around 50 percent a year earlier, said manager Taher El-Sayed.
The German Steigenberger Beach Hotel expects an 85 percent occupancy this year, said general manager Thomas Huth.
Sisi, a former army chief elected in 2014 a year after ousting his Islamist predecessor following mass protests, has not stressed this revival in his election campaign.
But he often suggests his government’s counter-terrorism strategy is making headway in restoring stability.
The rebound, however, has yet to reach Sharm El-Sheikh and the wider South Sinai region as authorities battle Daesh in North Sinai.
“The destinations that are most (negatively) affected are Sharm El-Sheikh city, or South Sinai, and this is of course a result of the absence of two very important markets which represent more than 50 to 60 percent of the business mix, which is the English and Russian markets,” says Demery.
Russian flights to Egypt were suspended after the 2015 plane bombing.
Aeroflot, Russia’s flagship carrier, announced on Tuesday that flights would resume between Moscow and Cairo starting April 11.
But no specific date has been set for flights to resume to Sharm El-Sheikh.
Tourism Minister Rania Al-Mashat said that “all issues around the airports’ security have already been resolved” and aviation officials are to meet in the coming weeks.


Syria’s key border crossings with 2 neighbors reopen

Updated 57 min 9 sec ago
0

Syria’s key border crossings with 2 neighbors reopen

  • The reopening of the crossings is a major boost to the Syrian, restoring commercial lifeline to the outside world
  • Arab countries have boycotted the Syrian government since the early days of the war

QUNEITRA, Syria: A vital border crossing between Jordan and Syria reopened on Monday for the first time in three years, promising to restore trade and movement between the two countries that had halted because of the war. Another crossing, between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, also reopened for UN observers who had left the area four years ago because of fighting there.
The reopening of the crossings is a major boost to the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad, restoring a commercial lifeline to the outside world. It also reinforces the Syrian government’s message that it is slowly emerging victorious from the seven-year conflict.
The Syrian flag was raised at the Quneitra crossing between Syria and the Israeli-held Golan.
UN observers and local notables from the Druze community, the predominant population in the area, gathered near the crossing. The UN observers had left the Quneitra crossing in 2014 for the first time since deploying there in 1974 to monitor a cease-fire and a demilitarized zone. Israel occupied the Golan Heights in 1967.
“It is a day of victory,” Youssef Jarbou, a Druze leader, told the Syrian Al-Ikhbariya TV from Quneitra.
Syrian forces recaptured the Quneitra area in July. Russian military police deployed in the area, including on the edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, setting up checkpoints in the area. Moscow said it planned to work closely with the UN force.
Meanwhile, at the Naseeb crossing between Syria and Jordan, dozens of private cars lined up to cross from Jordan. Security personnel and dogs searched the vehicles.
“Today is a feast, a feast for the whole Arab and Islamic nations and for the whole World, this crossing is vital for the whole Arab countries,” said Mohammed Khalil, the first Syrian in line waiting to cross back into his country.
Naseeb’s reopening would bring major financial relief to Assad’s government by restoring a much-needed gateway for Syrian exports to Arab countries. The resumption of commercial trade through the crossing will also be a diplomatic victory for Assad, whose government has been isolated from its Arab neighbors since the war began in 2011.
Arab countries have boycotted the Syrian government since the early days of the war, freezing its membership in the 22-member state Arab League.
“The Naseeb crossing is a vital lifeline for trade between the two brotherly countries Jordan and Syria through them to other Arab countries,” Jordan government spokeswoman Jumana Ghunaimat said.
Syrian rebels seized the crossing in 2015, disrupting a major trade route between Syria and Jordan, Lebanon and oil-rich Gulf countries.
Syrian government troops recaptured it in July, after rebels reached an agreement with Russian mediators to end the violence in the southern province of Daraa and surrender the crossing.
The crossing is also vital for Syria’s neighbor Lebanon, providing its agricultural products a route to foreign markets.
The recapture of Naseeb marked a major victory for Assad’s forces, which have been on a winning streak since 2015 when Russia threw its military weight behind Damascus. The victory in southern Syria signaled the return of his forces to Daraa province where the uprising against him began seven years ago.