Egyptian tourism industry on upswing

Cairo skyline ... glittering

IT’S boom time for the tourism industry in Egypt. In 2003, more than six million tourists visited the country – the highest-ever recorded in the history of Egyptian tourism.

Even though tourists from Italy, Germany, Russia, the UK and France top the listed, Arabs, who accounted for 1.32  million visitors of the total number – a 36 percent increase since 2001 – contributed in no small way in boosting the $4.3-billion industry.
But that’s not all. Reports have it that the good times in Egypt are poised to get better this year and, by all accounts, the numbers of visitors to the country have shown a steady increase in the first half of the year – a report by the Egyptian Tourism Ministry indicated that Arab tourists to Egypt alone reached more than 653,000 during the first half of 2004, a 44.3 percent increase from last year.
The former tourism minister Mamdouh Al Beltagui, now minister of information, did a fair deal to beef up the tourism movement and, now, the new tourism minister Ahmed Al Maghraby is confident of further improving the situation. A prominent businessman, former stockbroker and member of the ruling party’s economic committee, he has major plans to shore up the industry. And, to his credit, Al Maghraby has kicked off on the right note. The first thing he did after taking office was to announce his attention to attract foreign companies to invest in Egypt’s tourism infrastructure – a step that has earned him accolades from both within and outside the industry.
For the hotel industry, which has been reeling under the impact of successive incidents starting with the second Gulf War, terrorist attacks, the Luxor incident, the Palestinian Intifada, September 11, and, most recently, the war on Iraq, this boom couldn’t have come at a better time. Even though new hotels are opening doors – Four Season Hotel at Nile Plaza being the latest – and mega projects like the InterContinental Heliopolis Cairo are in the pipeline, there are those who think that the sector’s expansion has been a little haphazard.
Before taking over office Al Maghraby, in his capacity of board chairman of Accor Hotels, too had remarked that there was a situation of over supply in terms of hotel capacity. He  had argued that hotels should limit expansion until the rate per room reached a certain level. It’s true that the hotel industry, in general, had gone through bad times and the competition in a narrow market resulted in sharp reductions in room rates but now everybody in the business seems to be upbeat.
“We are very excited at the initial reponse to our newly-opened Four Seasons at Nile Plaza,” says Cesare Rouchdy, senior director of marketing, Four Seasons Hotels, Egypt. “We decided to open our second hotel in Cairo seeing the tremendous tourism potential Egypt holds out. The new hotel takes our total number of hotels in Egypt up to three (the other being the popular Four Seasons Sharm El-Sheikh) and shows our commitment to the country and the potential it has for a luxury brands like ours.”
Toufic Tamim, Mövenpick Hotels and Resorts’ area sales and marketing director, Middle East, reflects Rouchdy’s optimism. “As the largest operator of hotels in Egypt, we are upbeat about the country and are constantly expanding our chain the most recent being the opening of the first luxury five-star resort and spa at El Alamein,” says Tamim. “We are happy with the way the  government has been consistently promoting the destination worldwide, especially after September 11. Thanks to the well-planned advertising and promotional campaigns by the Ministry of Tourismt on international TV channels like CNN and multiple roadshows, tourism has not just bounced back but it has skyrocketed. With tourist arrivals constantly on the increase, the demand for luxury hotels is constantly growing but what the Ministry of Tourism may need to do is focus more on niche markets and upgrade its infrastructure. Egypt has so much to offer that we are not afraid of expanding.”
He goes on to add that competition in the hotel industry, in fact, works to everybody’s advantage. “We are happy that more global chains are opening and expanding in Egypt,” he says. “The new hotels may affect our revenue initially but, over time, we will have more hands clapping together to promote Egypt and bring in more business to the country. And, eventually, we will end up helping each other to everyone’s benefit.”
Adds Erick Huyer, director of sales and marketing, InterContinental & Holiday Inn Hotels, Heliopolis, “Everything is possible in Egypt, where you have the best of the past and the best of the future. Just when you think that the chips are down, the country bounces back. Luckily for us, tourism is on the upswing, making it a good time to open the Intercontinental Heliopolis Hotel around Ramadan. Considered one of the largest integrated projects of its kind in the Middle East, we are confident there’s a huge demand for something of this scale given the bookings we have started to receive already. In addition, we also have the Holiday Inn which is due to open next year. So, we will have another five-star and a four-star brand in Cairo.”
“There’s always room for luxury brands in Cairo,” adds Nasser Mokhtar; director of sales and marketing Conrad Cairo, which bagged the best downtown hotel in Cairo award for the second consecutive year last year. “Egypt itself has so much to offer and, as we target high-end tourists from around the world, we should be able to provide them with the highest quality of service. It’s something that we at Conrad have constantly maintained. In the end, good marketing strategies and the quality of service determine the success of the individual hotel.”
Mokhtar is right. But it helps that everything seems to have fallen in place – the hotels in Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada are booked out, charter flights are streaming in from all over the world and all of Cairo seems to be spilling over with tourists. And the good thing is that tourists have now started discovering an Egypt beyond the pyramids – they are heading for its fabled beaches, health spas and fantastic deserts. Lately, even golf has emerged as a major tourist attraction – even though deserts make up 95 per cent of Egypt’s land mass, the country boasts several deluxe golf courses, complete with accompanying world-class clubhouses and shopping malls have been developed in different tourist destinations such as the Red Sea, Sinai, Cairo and Luxor.
Of course, there’s no denying that a lot still remains to be done as far as improving the infrastructure and tourist facilities are concerned, but the Egyptian government and private investors are not taking their job lightly and, together, they have initiated many related projects to improve the overall tourist experience. Over the last couple of years, new airports have been built, roads have been improved and the number of hotels and cruise boats has multiplied.
Given the fact that Sharm El-Sheikh has been ranked fourth among the world’s most popular tourist destinations, the government is also actively pursuing further developments, particularly in south Sinai and on the Mediterranean Sea coast. If all goes according to plan – and, by all indication, everything is on track – it will not come as a surprise if the government not only meets its target of attracting eight million tourists per annum by 2005 but ends up improving on that figure.