Red-carpet welcome

Sharm El Sheikh ... Egypt's major new attraction.

Egypt is rolling out the red carpet for tourists as it continues to make a determined effort to stage a recovery from the crushing twin blows of September 11 and the Middle East crisis.

From an aggressive promotional campaign targeting new markets as well as regional and European visitors to fam trips to its Red Sea resorts and strong participation at international travel trade shows, Egypt is driving home the message that it remains a safe and exciting destination for world tourists.

Tourism minister Mamdouh El Beltagui is leading the campaign titled "It's your home" which also aims to tap new markets to cope with the fallout of declining numbers from the traditional markets of Europe and the United States.

Hoteliers and industry sources say the campaign is paying off as numbers pick up with Gulf and other regional travellers flocking to the country, specially the Red Sea resorts of Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada, along with Russians and Italians among other Europeans.

In the first four months of this year, tourist traffic declined by 16 per cent and El Beltagui blamed not only the September 11 fallout but also Israeli propaganda to spread falsehoods about Islam and Arabs to confuse them with terrorism.

"Arabs have failed to confront this propaganda, which damaged tourism, foreign investments and other Egyptian economic sectors," El Beltagui was quoted as saying in a recent report.

He has also expressed optimism over full recovery of the sector, adding he expected the October to November period of 2002 - high season for Egypt - to show no signs of the fall in worldwide tourism.

Tourism is a vital engine for the Egyptian economy and brought in $4.3 billion in 2000 - around 11 per cent of the country's gross national product, El Beltagui said.

But the September 11 attacks on US cities dealt a heavy blow to the sector. The number of foreign visitors to Egypt in 2001 fell by 15 per cent from a 2000 record of 5.5 million. Overnight stays fell nine per cent.

To help the sector, the Egyptian government has provided $29 million in support for charter flights to the country.

It has also sponsored visits by about 1,000 travel agents and travel writers to the country to show them Egypt is safe and eased visa requirements and allowed visitors from the European Union to come with just an identity card rather than a passport.

Several international hotel chains have shown their confidence in the country's longer-term potential opening new properties in Cairo, Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada.

Swiss group Mövenpick and the luxury brand Four Seasons have recently opened new properties in Egypt while US based Marriott International will be opening two new hotels this year.

Hilton International is also set to add three more hotels to its Egypt portfolio and Savoy is one of the newest brands to move into the country with its takeover of a resort in Sharm El Sheikh.

Despite the current gloom, Egypt undoubtedly remains one of the oldest vacation spots of the world, ranking near the top of a tourist's "must visit" places.

From the early Greeks and Romans to today's modern, inveterate globetrotter, tourists from every day and age have found something in the historic land to satisfy them.

Egypt is probably the world's oldest civilization having emerged from the Nile Valley around 3,100 years ago, historically.

But Egypt is much more than Pyramids and monuments. It is also Red Sea scuba diving, hot night spots, luxury hotels and five star restaurants.

It is romantic cruises down the Nile on festive river boats, a night at the grand opera and a unique cultural experience.

"Tourism figures prominently among the priorities of the Egyptian government, not only as the second most important source of foreign currency and a major job generating industry but also as a major tool for strengthening international understanding and peace," says El Beltagui.