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An exodus of tourists

If you want to see the Pyramids without thousands of Russian tourists stepping on your heels, there is no time like now. The uncertainty caused by the revolutions of the Arab Spring is keeping tourists away from North Africa – to the consternation of the locals and Hungarian travel agencies.

It is an early June day like any other in the Valley of the Kings. It is only 9 o’clock in the morning, but the temperature is already above 40°C. The limestone into which the tombs of ancient Pharaohs were carved reflects all the heat it had absorbed earlier, making our sweat evaporate instantly. Egyptian men from the ages of six to sixty rush to the tourist bus drawing in to hawk their scarabs, scarves, books and postcards.

This has been pretty much the same ever since Thomas Cook first brought British tourists to visit Egypt in the 1880s, at the dawn of mass tourism. Millions of tourists come to look at the desert-preserved monuments of one of the cradles of civilization every year, scratching their names into the old reliefs. (It used to be famous Egyptologists like Jean-Francois Champollion, one of the decipherers of the Rosette Stone, who left their marks, now the graffiti is increasingly in Cyrillic.) Yet in one respect, today’s picture is very different. Just last year, there might have been dozens of busloads of tourists waiting to view the tomb of Tutankhamon, at the time of the BBJ visit, there were maybe three in the parking lot.

The price of freedom

The reason for this is ironically one that was celebrated all over the world: the Arab Spring, when independent revolutions swept through Arab countries. The movements started in Tunisia in December 2010 and were followed by Egypt in January 2011. Later on the unrest spread to Libya in February, with Syria joining the wave in March. The popular movements challenged the governments, citing high unemployment, spiraling food prices, corruption, the lack of freedom of speech and other political freedoms as well as poor living conditions in general.

The freedom brought by the revolutions has, however, cost the North African economies dearly in terms of cash. According to Egyptian officials, the number of tourists has dropped sharply. In 2010, Egypt saw 14.7 million visitors, while the first half of 2011 showed a 50% drop, the Egyptian State Tourist Office told reporters in Hurghada, one of the country’s beach resorts. Of the around three million Egyptians employed in tourism, one of the country’s most important sources of revenue, more than a million are thought to be unemployed due to lack of demand from hotels and other tourist infrastructure providers.

And the situation is far from over: according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, real GDP growth in Egypt will drop to around 1.2% in fiscal year 2010/11 (July 1 to June 30) owing to the continuing impact of the political crisis.

The number of tourists is comparatively low despite government and industry efforts to spread the word that the army has restored order and that all tourists are safe. Egyptians are also doing their utmost to convince returning tourists that they are highly valued by “normal” Egyptians. And indeed, the tourist who stays in beach resorts and visits Cairo, the pyramids, and the Valley of the Kings on day trips, and maybe goes snorkeling to Giftun Island to view the Dead Sea corals is probably completely safe. But “probably” is enough to scare many of the families who usually visit the area.

Marshaling celebrities

Fear is difficult to dispel, and the government is limited in what it can do to fight it, especially while foreign ministries in many countries – among them, Hungary – are advising caution. “We are inviting famous people, diplomats and journalists, and we think they will spread the word that it is safe,” an official from the tourist office told reporters. However, it can only rely on the people who have already been there to act as testimonials to Egypt’s safety – and there are not too many of these at the moment.

The government is also intervening to keep the players of the sector afloat. In order to encourage agencies to start charters, for example, the government is paying the airfare for all seats left empty. It is also giving a tax break to the gigahotels on the beach.

Less travel from Hungary

Egypt is not the only one that struggles with the massive drop in tourism after the political instability in North Africa. Tunisia has gone through a similar revolution and tourists are still careful about the rest of North Africa. This is also causing pain for Hungarian tourism agencies, who are heavily reliant on business to the area.

Hungarian market players agree that they expect a 20-25% decrease in the number of trips this year based on the current data on passenger numbers and incomes. Mihályné Füri, head of Kartago Tours told the Budapest Business Journal that she had expected a 15% growth for this year, but after the North African crisis lead to charters to Tunisia stopping from January to April, and those to Egypt stopping in February and at the end of March, the agency is suffering from a 25% drop in traffic. “We have expanded the number of our destinations for the summer and Tunisian and Egyptian bookings are also picking up, so we hope that we will be able to close the year with a 15% drop altogether,” she added.

Another tourism agency, Best Reisen expects a 20-25% drop in income. Tibor Zám, head of the agency said that so far there were 20% fewer passengers to Tunisia in this season than in the previous one. He adds that the company had around HUF 6.7 billion income in 2010, while this year, he hopes that it will stay above HUF 6 billion, a 10% revenue drop.

However, the political crisis in North Africa is not the only cause of plummeting passenger numbers. The economic crisis has tightened people’s budget for traveling all over the developed world, and Hungary is no exception. “The economic crisis is causing a lot more damage to the tourism industry than the North African crisis,” he added. Since the economic crisis hit, off-season trips have basically disappeared, he says. Now, 70% of the trips in the entire year are restricted to the three months of summer, the peak season.

Spring seen in October

Despite the current disappointing data, market players are seeing an end to the crisis, even if not in the short-term. “Passengers seem more confident, and they are slowly returning to trips to Tunisia and Egypt,”  Mihályné Füri explained. Another agency, Neckermann confirmed this, and said trips to Egypt started becoming popular again.

This is underpinned by data from Anubis Travel, an agency which specializes in organizing trips to Middle Eastern countries. According to Ahmed Bahgat, the head and owner of the agency, all of their Malév charter flights to Egypt in June were fully booked by the beginning of the month. “We are pretty sure that by the peak season, which is in October, things will be back to normal,” he said.

Most think that if the political situation in Tunisia and especially in Egypt stays under control, and general elections put an end to the history of the time of political uncertainty, the second part of the 2011 season will at least partly make up for the losses suffered in the spring.

The mummies, meanwhile, wait patiently. They know that whatever happens, interest in them will come back to life. After all, if they’ve waited this long, they can stand a few more months – or even centuries. ASz-MTD