Land of wonders

Egypt’s tourism industry bounces back, writes SHAFQUAT ALI
Cairo skyline

The last four years have been very good for Egypt’s tourism industry.

The total number of tourists surged up from 4.7 million in 2001 to 5.2 million in 2002, it rose to six million in 2003 and then quickly jumped to a record 8.2 million tourists last year – a phenomenal 34 per cent increase in numbers. According to analysts, things would have been no different this year. And they were not wrong – as a matter of fact, tourist numbers grew in the first three months of 2005 compared to last year.
Some said that Egypt attracted extra visitors this year after tourists decided to avoid tsunami-hit Asia. Whatever be the case, the going was good till the triple bomb attacks wrecked Sharm El Sheikh on July 23, killing more than 80 people including a number of foreign tourists.
There is no doubt that the local tourism industry was badly hit by the unfortunate incident and the economy scrambled to get back on its feet given that tourism is Egypt’s number one foreign exchange earner. But, like Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif noted, though the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh had been affected by the blasts, other tourist attraction areas such as Hurghada, Luxor, Cairo and Aswan did not suffer any major setback.
Thanks to the fact that international bodies like the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (WTO) were quick to extend Egypt its full support, the country’s tourism industry is back on track. Reports have it that traffic at the Sharm El Sheikh Airport is also back to normal and the number of Italian tourists is on the increase. In fact, several Italian companies, which had earlier banned flights due to the blasts, have resumed flights last month.
What’s more, the number of Serbian tourists to Egypt is expected to double this year to 100,000, the recent terrorist attacks notwithstanding. Serbian minister of international economic relations Predrag Ivanovic hailed Egypt’s swift and tactful handling of the situation and went as far to say that it never crossed his mind to put off his own visit to Egypt after the “criminal” attacks.
As for the government of Egypt, it is already working out plans to boost tourism and is keen to increase the annual number of visitors to the country to 16 million by the mid-2010s, which will mean building about 12,000 to 14,000 new hotel rooms a year at an annual cost of about $1 billion. With so much to offer tourists, that target seems very achievable.
From Giza’s pyramids and sphinx to Sinai’s golden beaches to the alluring Red Sea resorts to Cairo’s operas, museums and hot nightspots, the options are endless. For decades Egypt, with a great combination of grand history and modern culture, has been rated as one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. Clearly, in the land of pyramids and pharaohs, there’s something for everyone.
There’s no doubt that the pyramids of Giza, the oldest of the seven ancient wonders, is Egypt’s single biggest tourist attraction. But there’s more to Egypt than pharaohs and pyramids. The gargantuan Egyptian Museum of Antiquities, which showcases all that lay beneath the pyramids and more, for one. Representing the largest collection of its kind in the world, it boasts more than 100,000 artefacts spanning Egyptian history from the earliest dynasties to the Roman era. It will probably take a whole week to see every single exhibit but it will be certainly well worth your while. But if you do not have the luxury of time suggest you don’t miss the Tutankhamun Galleries, which display the gold and gem-inlaid funerary mask and 1,700 other treasures found in the tomb of the Boy King, and the Royal Mummy Room, which contains the corpses of 11 of Egypt’s most powerful pharaohs including Seti I and his son Ramses II. As one stares into the face of kings and queens who died some 3,000 years ago it’s difficult not to get goose pimples!
Cairo may be dirty and overpopulated but it has a certain charm. After all, it’s more than just another city – it is a product of its history. The unique thing about Cairo is that each new ruler – whether Roman, Greek, Persian, French or Arabs – rather than destroying what he had conquered, chose to build a new city upwind from the old. And it’s not surprising that the city of Cairo is divided into very distinctive parts.
But for those who want to wallow in its history there’s no place better than that the Old City, with its maze-like shopping district and ancient mosques. Walk through Khan El Khalili, the central shopping bazaar which has remained largely unchanged since the 14th century, and you will find yourself transported to the Middle Ages. While in Egypt, a cruise down the Nile is a must and so is a night out with bellydancers thrown in for good before.
But that’s not all. The government of Egypt is now drawing up a comprehensive plan through which several ministries will interact with Egyptian trading offices abroad in order to and tap recuperative sites in the country and promote it around the world. In fact, Prime Minister Nazif has announced the creation of a recuperative tourism office to develop the country’s 1,350 health springs, which are popular in combating a large number of chronic skin diseases. The office would concentrate on developing the natural potential of the sandy areas in Safaga on the Red Sea and Siwa Oasis in Matrouh Governorate. The government’s plan also includes the development of hospitals at these locations, providing them with the most up-to-date medical technologies and improving the training of their staff.
With so much going for it, it’s hardly surprising that Egypt’s tourism has managed to get its act together and recuperate from the July 23 attacks in such a short time.