Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Egyptian Tourism Minister Hisham Zazou highlighted the new measures being taken by Cairo to bring tourists back to the country following the recent unrest.
Zazou, who also served as tourism minister in the Mursi administration, revealed that Egypt is seeking to increase the number of visitors to the Red Sea region as part of a broader strategy to return Egypt’s tourist trade to pre-revolutionary levels.
This strategy has seen a particular focus on securing an influx of tourists from Arab Gulf states, with direct flights being offered between Egyptian tourist destinations and Riyadh, Jeddah, Kuwait City and Amman for the first time.
The Egyptian tourism minister also spoke about tourism under the Mursi government, conceding that the Muslim Brotherhood rhetoric did not help in attracting tourists to the country, adding that the presidency supported the campaign to attract Iranian tourists to the country.
Zazou is an independent politician who served as chairman of Egypt’s Tourism Federation between 2003 and 2007. He first joined the government during the Hosni Mubarak era, serving as deputy tourism minister. He was appointed tourism minister in the government of Muslim Brotherhood affiliate Hisham Qandil, famously resigning when the then-President Mursi appointed Adel Mohammed Al-Khayat—a member of the Construction and Development Party, the armed wing of the Al-Gama’a Al-Islamiyya—as Luxor governor.
Asharq Al-Awsat: You have recently undertaken an international tour seeking to promote Egyptian tourism and bring tourists back to the country. Has this worked?
Hisham Zazou: There have certainly been positive effects. In order to bring tourists back to Egypt, we need to explore the possibility of tour operators providing packages to Egypt. During the period when countries issued travel warnings for Egypt, none of the major tour operators wanted to talk about the future because they didn’t know when the warnings would be lightened or lifted.
Q: When did foreign countries start issuing travel warnings against visiting Egypt?
These went into effect after the clearing of the Rabaa Al-Adawiya and Al-Nahda Square sit-ins on August 14. As for the previous warnings, some were issued as early as July. Consequently, tourist traffic was not very good. After the clearing of the two sit-ins, the warnings went into effect immediately, which impacted incoming tourist traffic very harshly. In September, there was a 90 percent decrease compared to the previous year. Unfortunately, these warnings were a pivotal issue for us.
Now, after the lifting of the warnings by a number of countries, we have begun dialogue with the major tour operators. I think, God willing, that our efforts have begun to bear fruit as of this November. I imagine that by February, if things continue along this path, things will be much better.
Q: Have these warnings had an influence on tourists coming from Europe and America?
Of course. . .72 percent of tourists to Egypt come from Europe, which put warnings in place. It was first necessary to deal with them by trying to lighten or lift these warnings, and this is the strategy we have pursued over the last several months. Thankfully, as I speak, there are now 21 countries, mostly in Europe, that have lifted their warnings, besides Japan, which had also issued tourist warnings.
Q: To what extent does the Egyptian economy depend on tourism?
Tourism is one of the pillars of the Egyptian economy and the most important source of support, especially in terms of employment. Statistics say that Egyptian tourism brought approximately USD 12.5 billion in revenue to the Egyptian treasury in 2010, compared with around USD 4.5 billion from the Suez Canal. In other words, tourism accounts for more than double the income of the Suez Canal.
Tourism contributes approximately 11.3 percent of the country’s GDP, while accounting for approximately 45 percent of non-commodity exports, while nearly 4 million people are employed by the tourism sector, either directly or indirectly. Tourism has links to almost 70 other industries, so when tourism operates at full speed, it will help the many industries associated with it to recover.
Q: The Egyptian state now appears to be pursuing a policy of rapprochement with Russia. Do you expect more Russian tourists to come to Egypt in the near future?
Of course. In 2010, approximately 2.8 million Russian tourists visited Egypt. In the last year, 2.5 million Russian tourists have come. Russia is a very important source of tourism for us. I think that the more attention we pay to this issue, the more Russian tourists will visit Egypt. I think it will be very easy to increase the number of Russian tourists to 3 million in the near future.
Q: What steps has the new military-backed interim government taken to encourage the flow of tourists into the country?
There was a move before the last crisis [the ouster of Mohamed Mursi] to increase the departure tax at passenger airports, but we stopped this and postponed it so as to facilitate tourism. There was also a push to increase the price of visas for those arriving at Egyptian ports by USD 10. This has also been postponed until next May.
We are now working on communicating with the relevant bodies—such as the central bank, the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Electricity—to help the tourism sector get off the ground again. All of these ministries and bodies are linked to and affected by Egypt’s tourism sector. We have worked to convince the ministries not to worry about the prices of Egyptian tourism-related products, at least for now, until the sector has recovered.
Q: Has there been discussion about reducing the cost of domestic flights?
The initiative to reduce the cost of domestic flights originated from the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism in the form of a three-week tourist program beginning this past September. Ticket prices were discounted by 50 percent, provided that those who bought the tickets also bought a tourist package which included a hotel stay. We will repeat this experiment at the beginning of winter, and there will be flights at reduced prices to Luxor, Aswan, Hurghada and other locales.
Q: Will this be limited to Egyptian nations, or will it also apply to foreign tourists?
First and foremost, it will be aimed at Egyptian nationals, but will also include foreign nationals as well. Increasing air traffic helps us increase tourist traffic. As for the Arab countries, a tentative date of December 18 has been set for the start of flights linking a number of Gulf cities with Egyptian tourist destinations, specifically Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh. Luxor and Aswan will be added in the future.
For example, for the first time there will be direct flights from Jeddah and Riyadh to Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh, in addition to direct flights connecting Hurghada and Sharm El Sheikh to Kuwait City, Amman and the UAE. All of this helps to diversify Egypt’s tourism sector and make it easy for our Arab brothers to come to Egypt.
Q: There was a theory during the tourism crisis that followed the January 25 revolution that tourism promotion should focus on the fringes, that is, regions away from Cairo, with gradual effort being made to bring tourists back to the capital and other major cities that have witnessed unrest. Is this theory still being put into practice today?
First, this theory met with success because, until recently, tense events were happening in Cairo every day. But now the unrest there has abated. The events that used to transpire there on a near-daily basis began to happen once a week on Friday, and then only rarely. Now we can once again promote tourism to Cairo, Luxor and Aswan as a related product.
However, I must work to find solutions. The solution at that time was focusing on regions far away from the center of events, most of which occurred in Cairo or Alexandria or the major cities, hundreds of kilometers away from places like Hurghada or Ras Alam or South Sinai. The idea was for us to invite professionals and journalists from various countries to come and see for themselves that cities like Hurghada were far removed from the violence.
This policy succeeded, and when the tourist warnings were finally lifted, the first tourists to arrive in Egypt headed to the Red Sea region. This is a new beginning, and it will be sound thinking that will help maintain the attraction of Egyptian tourism. Soon, in addition to tourists visiting the Red Sea region, we will see them return to Cairo, Luxor, Aswan and Abu Simbel.
Q: What has the government done to help those affected by a decline in tourism, especially in the areas that rely exclusively on the sector for income?
From the beginning, we allotted EGP 5 million [USD 750,000] to address this issue. We’ve distributed EGP 3 million in support of those less fortunate workers who are employed by the tourism industry and do not have a steady income outside of it. This includes stagecoach operators and felucca sailing-boat owners. These individuals’ daily wages are connected to tourism.
When we realized the extent of the crisis, the Ministry of Tourism and private-sector tourism companies got together to provide financial assistance for those who rely on the tourism sector. This money helps support their families, and another fund is designated for the equipment they’ve stopped using. I went on a field visit to the city of Luxor and the experience brought tears to my eyes. Tourism was almost non-existent.
One of the owners of a stagecoach said to me, “You have the opportunity to see the miserable conditions we live in as a result of the decline in tourism.”
That incident reminded me of the social dimension of the issue and inspired me to take action. Even if the government’s resources are limited and it is not within my power to take money from the budget for this sort of thing, I lobbied the chambers of tourism and was able to hand a check to the governors of Luxor and Aswan. The first round of money amounts to EGP 1.5 million for Luxor and Aswan each, and both cities will eventually receive another EGP 1 million. This will happen whether or not tourism picks up again. The goal is to alleviate the burden placed on these communities and the ordinary people who depend on tourism.
Q: You worked as Minister of Tourism in the Mursi administration. What is the difference between your work with the previous government and your work with the current one?
I will be honest: The former government did not attempt to interfere in tourism. On the first day, I had an important meeting with former Prime Minister Hisham Qandil and we discussed some observations about tourism in Egypt. I told him that this industry relies on international relations, and if we change the rules of the game, we will lose. Since I have many years of experience in the field, he did not interfere in my work.
The former president also agreed with this method. However, there was something wrong with the atmosphere of Islamic rule and the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the top positions of government. Their rhetoric was provocative and shocking, but there was no change in how we administered the tourism sector. There was a double effort to convince others, especially decision-makers in Western countries, that there had been no major changes and that it was safe to send tourists to Egypt.
Q: What is new in your work under the current interim government?
What is new is that I am no longer resorting to this approach; I’m not prepared to waste any more time trying to convince other countries that tourism in Egypt is fine. What we are saying is that the situation has improved under the government of the June 30 revolution and we’ve adjusted to the circumstances. Today, no one is talking about passing strict statutes or separating sexes at the beach. The general climate is now different.
Q: Who was behind the attempt to encourage Iranian tourism to Egypt during the latter stages of the Mursi administration ?
The former government—more specifically, the presidency itself—pushed this initiative. They asked me to provide information about Iranian tourism around the world, the size of the market, spending, etc. I gave this information to the presidency. One study mentioned that in one year, 200 million tourists visited Turkey. This figure caught my eye, because countries like Turkey encourage Iranian tourism. These tourists don’t come for religious reasons like participation in Shi’a rituals, but instead to enjoy historical and cultural visits.
We submitted this report to the presidency during a meeting that also involved other concerned parties. It was agreed that if there were a chance for Egypt to open a new market for tourism, Iran would be the first choice, especially since we have had no Iranian tourists for more than 30 years. Thus we began working on the technical details of eliminating the obstacles for Iranians to visit Egypt, but unfortunately the Egyptian people reacted negatively to the initiative. There was also no support for the issue after the attack on an Iranian at the hands of some Salafists.
My feeling was that it would be best to stop Iranian tourists in order to both stave off fears and to avoid creating problems with our Arab brothers in the Gulf. This relationship is very important, and I have said before that encouraging Iranian tourism cannot come at the expense of our Arab counterparts or our nation’s security. I also said that any communication with Iran must take these considerations into mind.
This is an abridged version of an interview originally conducted in Arabic.