'A love-hate relationship': Egypt's tourists return after years of instability but not without danger

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For Hannah Lee it was the historical sites of Luxor and Aswan as well as the cheap diving spots on the Red Sea that first piqued her interest in Egypt.

Key points:

  • Egypt struggled to regain the tourism boom since the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak
  • But Reuters reported Egypt’s tourism industry increased by over 80 per cent in 2017
  • A tourist was recently sentenced to 8 years jail for posting a video slamming Egypt

“I love the history and it’s really beautiful,” said the 23-year-old South Korean who studies in neighbouring country Jordan and came to the diving town Dahab in South Sinai during a break in her course.

But constant verbal sexual harassment, security dangers, and general hassles from touts during her multiple vacations to the country have left her with mixed feelings of visiting Egypt.

“It’s a love-hate relationship,” she says.

From record numbers to an industry in strife

Years of political instability and deadly violence following the uprising in 2011 that overthrew dictator Hosni Mubarak after some 30 years of iron-fist rule have also forced many others to re-think travel plans to the history-laden Middle Eastern hotspot.

After a record year for tourism in 2010 — with over 14 million tourists — Egypt has not seen figures close to that since the start of the Arab Spring following attacks on foreigners and travel warnings.

A tragic bombing in October 2015 of a flight en route to St Petersburg from resort city Sharm El-Sheikh in the Sinai peninsula spelt a near death-knell to the country’s important tourism industry.

The attack, claimed by an Egyptian affiliate of the Islamic State group, killed all 224 passengers and staff on board.

Russia — who sends the bulk of its tourists to warm coastal resorts — promptly cancelled direct flights to Egypt, along with many other European countries stopping charter flights to Red Sea airports.

In September of the same year, eight Mexicans and four of their Egyptian tour guides were mistakenly gunned down by military helicopters during a safari in the Western Desert.

Not surprisingly, Egypt saw less than 5 million tourists visit in 2016 — the worst figure in years.

‘Any help on tourism front is a positive for Egyptians’

But positive signs are starting to emerge though, with over 8 million tourists having visited Egypt in 2017.

And in May this year, Reuters reported an 80 per cent increase in revenues from the previous year.

Following the downing of the Russian flight in 2015, thorough security improvements overseen by the United Kingdom have been across Egypt’s airports.

However, for many working in the industry, including in South Sinai, the official increases are not quite paying off yet, as direct flights from places like Russia to Sharm El-Sheikh are yet to resume.

“The European people are watching TV and reading the news but aren’t listening to people here,” complained Faiz, a Bedouin from the diving town Dahab in South Sinai, who has worked with tourists most of his life.

“When we don’t have tourists all we can do is go to fish,” he says.

Youssef, who runs a tour company in Dahab and a couple of restaurants, says the hiatus in direct flights to Sharm El-Sheikh from Russia has prolonged suffering.

“Tour companies are travelling to Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan [cities along the Nile] and if they want the beach side they go to Hurghada or Marsa Alam because it doesn’t take as long to get to,” Youssef explains.

The importance of Egyptian tourism to the economy is often overstated, some observers say, but with high unemployment and under employment especially among the youth, it remains an essential sector of the country’s economics.

“Tourism is good for producing jobs that pay reasonably well in a country that is frankly struggling to keep up with a growing work population,” Timothy A Kaldas, non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, said.

“So any help on [the tourism] front is a positive for Egyptians.”

‘A son of a bitch country’ vs slick tourism campaigns

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The Egyptian Government has attempted to lure tourists back with glossy campaigns managed by slick Western PR firms, but widely publicised human rights abuses and draconian court decisions have made the job all the more difficult.

In early July, Lebanese tourist Mona el-Mazboh was arrested at Cairo airport before her flight and days after sentenced to eight years in prison for “harming the Egyptian people” after a video she posted on social media went viral.

She called Egypt “a son of a bitch country”, complained of sexual harassment and — referring to President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi — said “I hope God sends [Egypt] someone more oppressive than Sisi”.

“Very understandably her being detained for several years will probably turn away tourists,” explained Mr Kaldas.

A slew of other decisions, such as the jailing of a belly dancer, and more than one singer, both on morality-related charges — an idiosyncrasy of Egypt’s legal system — continue to give the country bad publicity.

And the well-publicised murder of a young Italian PhD researcher in 2016 — believed to be at the hands of Egyptian security forces after prolonged torture, has yet to be solved, but it brought to the international spotlight the frequency of such abuses in the country.

“But in Egypt, for tourists, it’s pretty safe and an increasing number of governments have been making that assessment lately,” Mr Kaldas said.

Conflicting reports: Is it safe or dangerous to visit?

The results of a global Gallup poll in June this year placed Egypt as the 16th safest country in the world out of a total of 135 which is good news for a country trying to improve its image.

That result was largely due to the fact that in Egypt, violent crimes like those found in Mexico —such as robberies and muggings — are rare.

But in 2017, the Thomson Reuters Foundation published a contrasting poll saying that Cairo is the most dangerous megacity in the world for women.

“Really bad data collection methodologies are possibly the case for both studies,” Mr Kaldas said of the apparent discrepancy between the findings of the two polls, but hastened to add that sexual harassment is a serious problem in Egypt.

But for the time being, it seems to once again be an increasingly popular holiday destination in either case as what were empty museums and antiquities sites just a couple of years ago are now flanked with busses full of tourists.

Ms Lee, the South Korean tourist, ponders for a few moments to consider if she would return to Egypt.

“Right now, honestly, I don’t want to come here again.”

“But maybe I would after a few years — I will miss some of these things,” she says, pointing at the deep blue Red Sea as the sun is about to set behind the imposing mountain range that stretches the coast of South Sinai.