By SALVADOR ALMEIDA
Guards in pharaonic costume paraded outside the Cairo International Exhibition and Convention Centre, venue of the Mediterranean Travel Fair (MTF), September 24-26, as a folklore group served up lively Egyptian fare.
There was the normal bustle associated with an international trade fair, and the pundits who forecast a disruption following the September 11 terrorist incidents in the US were proved wrong.
Certainly, security measures were in full force, but that was nothing new to Egyptian conference or tourist sites, Cairo having dealt with terrorist incidents in the past decade.
Egyptian Prime Minister Dr Atef Ebeid opened the event, reflecting the importance the Egyptian government attaches to tourism.
Although 11 companies failed to show up, enthusiasm was far from dampened, with the announcement that the number of stands was in fact a 10 per cent increase over the 2000 MTF, the newcomers including representations from Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Malaysia, Argentina and Malta.
"This is an encouraging sign," said Egyptian Minister of Tourism Mamdouh El Beltagui.
"Our MTF guests, by coming here, have demonstrated they consider Egypt a peaceable nation and a safe destination."
Tom Nutley, managing director of Reed Travel Exhibitions, which organised the event in association with the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism, said the cancellations were not serious as in any such event, there were four or five withdrawals by opening day.
The effects of the terrorist strikes would be felt in the regional travel and tourism industry, but it was resilient, as it had experienced violence before, he said, referring to terrorist incidents in Egypt in recent years.
"It comes back stronger, more resilient, in better shape and continues to grow," said Nutley.
"This is an industry that in the long term will run, will provide income, will provide employment."
He expected regional tourism growth to be four per cent per year.
That only 11 companies had withdrawn from the MTF "says a lot about the industry and the professionalism of the industry", he added.
The Egyptian travel and tourism industry was well represented and the event had the support of the Egyptian Travel Agents Association, the Egyptian Hotels Association and Egypt Air.
Beltagui reacted strongly to suggestions there was a serious slump in hotel business after September 11, saying the figures his ministry had collected did not reflect that position.
The minister acknowledged the terrorist strikes in the US triggered cancellations but these were no more than 18 per cent overall in the first week after the incidents.
Europe contributes up to 80 per cent of the incoming tourist traffic, the Arab world 16 per cent and the US and other regions four per cent.
Tourist arrivals in Egypt in 2000 were 5.5 million against 4.79 million in 1999 and 3.9 million in 1997. One in 10 Egyptians earns his bread from tourism.
Beltagui said the Egyptian tourism industry would suffer when the expected US-led retaliatory strikes materialised. The effect would depend on "the volume, location and duration" of the military action.
There is growing interest in the US in Egpytian history with several American universities having participated in archaeological expeditions including efforts to determine the age of the Great Sphinx.
Egyptian authorities therefore are concerned that US visitor numbers are not commensurate with that scholastic enthusiasm.
"The US market was not affected much because of its small size. We want this market to grow," Beltagui said.
The strikes came at a time when Egypt's tourism campaign was in full flow. Beltagui spoke of initiatives during the past year to bolster confidence among Europeans, saying strong links had been forged with tour operators.
To stem the fallout from the September 11 incidents, Egypt has enforced security like never before, with airports, hotels, convention centres, archaeological sites and museums subjected to the strictest scrutiny.
Sniffer dogs were on hand at the MTF and metal detection devices and body searches slowed movement into the venue but were seen by the visitors as appropriate steps.
Reflecting on security, Beltagui remarked that notwithstanding the arrangements, there would be a degree of fear among air travellers, considering the terrorists had proved chillingly that a means of transportation could be converted into an engine of death and TV screens across the world had transmitted that horror in all its shocking detail.
One of the visitors to the MTF was American Charlie Gatt who asked what steps Egypt was taking to build confidence among tourists wishing to head for Cairo.
"There is a comprehensive plan. We are working with the private sector - parties there that go with us to market the product," responded Beltagui.
The first step was to maintain communication channels with tourism companies abroad. The tourism industry would have to be told the truth about the situation in Egypt through credible statistics.
The second step would be to accelerate the familiarisation tour programme. An important approach towards developing the tourist traffic would be to find a balance between promotion and marketing with pricing playing a crucial role. Price flexibility would be of the essence.
It was also important that tourists realised that terrorism could not be equated with Islam, said Beltagui.
Arab and Muslim states would have to tackle the issue of the image of Islam.
One of the exhibitors was Egypt's private carrier Scorpio Aviation, which is the country's only other airline apart from national carrier Egypt Air.
Scorpio announced at the MTF it was on the threshold of covering the whole of Egypt with scheduled flights to begin from October 1 to the resorts of Mersa Alam and Taba from Cairo.
The airline already flies to Abu Simbel, Aswan, Luxor, Hurghada and Sharm El Sheikh with two 46-seat ATR42-320 aircraft built by an Airbus subsidiary.
The airline will also start services to Amman, Aqaba and Beirut this month and plans to introduce a service to the Gulf states within the next few months after acquiring two larger aircraft.