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11 Mar, 2011

Egyptian Tourism Minister Blasts Ex-Regime’s “Cronies”, Liberalisation Policies

ITB BERLIN: Egyptian Tourism Minister Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour has blasted the “extreme” economic liberalisation and privatisation policies of the ousted Hosni Mubarak government, saying they had failed to address the country’s glaring rich-poor income gap. Although he did not elaborate on what the present government will do to fix that, his remarks will resonate in many other countries going down the neoliberal liberalisation path, with tourism as a primary target. The new government has already put the deregulation and privatisation plans on hold.

Mr Abdel Nour was speaking at the Egyptian Press conference on March 10, one of many public events held by Egypt and Tunisia, the two flavours-of-the-month countries, which are making full use of the world’s biggest trade show to brandish their new free and democratic political credentials and make a strong pitch for a quick return of visitors.

Both ministers appeared jointly at a press conference by the UN World Tourism Organisation to convey this message, and then elaborated on their own plans and policies in individual events. The Egyptian media event was a particular hit. The press conference room, which can host about 120 people, was packed out and, for the first time that this editor has seen in 25 years of covering ITB, special video screens were set up outside to help media watch the proceedings. All told, it was a far cry from the old days when Egyptian tourism was repeatedly on the defensive as it mounted recovery and crisis-management plans following terrorist attacks.

Both Mr Abdel Nour and the Tourism Minister of Tunisia, Mr Mehdi Houas, highlighted their countries’ historic heritage to underscore the importance of the changes taking place. They noted that positive awareness of their countries is at an all-time high, and that the hotels and airlines, tourist sites and attractions, are all open for business. Both depend on Europe for a large percentage of their visitors and are seeking to reassure their tour operator and other partners that while much has changed, and is changing in their countries, the tourism partnerships will remain in place.


Their own personal positions epitomise the changes. Mr Abdel Nour, 66, is a Cairo-born politician, banker and businessman with a degree from the American University in Cairo. A Coptic Christian, he told the press conference that he himself had been among the demonstrators at Tahrir Square for three days in a row. Although his predecessor, Mohammed Zoheir Garanah, is facing allegations of corruption, the Deputy Minister of Tourism, Mr Hisham Za’azou, has been brought back as first assistant to the new Minister. Mr Za’azou told this editor that he too had been among the demonstrators.

In turn, Mr Houas is a former president of the CETO association of French tour operators, and until two months ago had been running a company in Paris.

Both ministers are drawing upon their business background to ensure that travel and tourism delivers the goods. “For democracy to flourish, we need a strong economy,” Mr Houas said in French, which was translated into English. “Tourism is 7% of our GDP and generates 400,00 direct jobs and 400,000 indirect jobs, which means 30% of our population lives on tourism.”

This editor did not attend the Tunisian press conference because it was in French and German. However, the head of the Tunisian tourist office in Germany Mr Saidi Mohammed said he was awaiting budgetary approval to restart the marketing and promotion campaigns in partnership with the German tour operators.

He made it clear that he would like to see the Germans do more on their own. “We have always helped them in the past with 50-50 partnerships. Now we want them to help us.” He said that although all the flights between Germany and Tunisia had been restored, he was not happy with yet another German government travel advisory that warned against visiting Southern Tunisia due to the situation on the border with Libya and the presence of thousands of refugees fleeing the fighting there.


Both Tunisia and Egypt have made branding changes based on the new developments. Tunisia’s tourism slogan now reads: “I Love Tunisia – The Place To Be NOW” with the word “love” represented by a red heart symbol. Special stickers have been printed and pasted onto all the collateral brochures and publications being distributed at the Tunisian stand.

Egypt, according to a media release, has buttressed the existing slogan, “Egypt – Where It All Begins” with new slogans and branding images that refer to the peaceful revolution, the sense of public pride and energy. Some of them read, “The online revolution–made in Egypt”, “TAHRIR – a square that rocks the world” and “ Welcome to the country of peaceful revolution.” A postal stamp has been printed commemorating the date January 25, 2011, when the revolution started. A special poster shows one of the prominent background buildings of Tahrir square with the words, “Tahrir Square, from Egypt with love.”

At the Egypt press conference, Mr Abdel Nour, Mr Za’azou and the chairman of the Egyptian tourist authority, Mr Amr Elezabi, repeatedly stressed the uniqueness of visiting Egypt at this particular time. Mr Elezabi said this time it would not just be a regular visit but a “human experience” to be in the country and enjoy the thrill of being nearly all alone in a site such the Temples of Karnak which at any given time can be crowded by 10,000 visitors a day.

The Egyptians noted that the country got 14.7 million visitors last year. In January, thanks to the pre-revolution arrivals, the country got 1.2 million visitors. Under normal circumstances, Egypt’s tourism records an average length of stay of nine days and an average daily expenditure of $85 a day. Hence, the virtually overnight collapse in the number of visitors during the Revolution period had done huge economic damage.

The country gets 80% of its total visitors from tour operators, including 70% via charters to the Red Sea resorts. Although reviving this mass-market is a key priority for bread-and-butter reasons, new opportunities are being sought to develop visitors from Asia (especially India and China) and Latin America and build on the huge consumer awareness to get more direct bookings.

Mr Za’azou said the MICE sector had naturally been very badly affected but there are strong signs that it was beginning to come back. He said there is a plan to open an office in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in addition to the existing office in Mumbai, India, but this is now subject to budgetary approval.

A hotelier with a Steigenberger property in the Red Sea said they had 90% occupancy in 2010 and are now back to 40% this month and 45% on the books for April and are projecting 70% later this year. “At no time that I can say that any of our customers or expatriates were scared during this time. Actually I take off my hat off to the Egyptian employees. They took more care of the guests. I invite any of the guests to come back. It’s peaceful.”


Although most questions during the Press conference related to the “new, improved” Egypt, some related to the safety and security issue, as well as the future of former businessmen associates of Mr Gamal Mubarak, the son of ex-President Hosni Mubarak, and the military, both of which were known to have strong links to the travel and tourism industry.

In reply, Mr Abdel Nour did not mince any words. He said, “Gamal Mubarak was surrounded by cronies, not businessmen. There is a difference.” He indicated that the military’s involvement in business affairs would be downgraded so that it could relinquish power to a freely elected government and remain focused on its traditional role, viz., to defend the country. “As for the cronies, they are being investigated…” Mr Abdel Nour said.

In the same context, he blasted the economic liberalisation policies of which tourism had been very much a part, with the “cronies” being major beneficiaries. These policies, he said, may have been okay for the United States but were not appropriate for Egypt.

“Our big problem, and you have to know that, the extreme liberal policies that were executed by the ex-regime had terrible, terrible repercussions on the social structure of the population. The huge difference between income and wealth, between the rich enjoying a very, very lavish standard of living, and living in high-standard gated communities, and 42% of the Egyptian population living on less than two dollars a day, deprived of the bare minimum, was not acceptable. It was unsustainable.

“I’m not criticising the extreme liberal policies without justification. They were thinking that those policies would have a trickle-down effect and what profits that were made on top would eventually go down. That never happened. The differences were ever increasing. The result is that it blew up.

“It blew up in a peaceful manner, in an intelligent manner, with the use of the technologies of the second decade of the 21st century. It is an intelligent, technical revolution made by a very ambitious youth that is clearly looking to build up a new, democratic, free, fair and equitable and secular society.”


One German journalist pressed the safety issue, in the light of an isolated sectarian clash on March 9. He wanted to know how safe Christians are in Egypt and whether “there is any animosity by the Muslims against the Christians.” The minister replied by noting that he himself is a Christian. “I am not facing any aggression from anyone here.” To which the reporter retorted, “You are not in Egypt.” Mr Abdel Nour ignored that. This was his response:

“When I was saying that I am very lucky to be here to answer questions and to put things into perspective this (question) is a point in case. Sir, let me remind you that the demonstrations were taking place in Tahrir square every Friday and Friday prayers (were being observed there). And those who were sheltering (those praying) were Christians. To describe the spirit of Tahrir Square and to describe the spirit of the revolution, they decided to have a demonstration on Sunday, to have Christians do a mass on Sunday in Tahrir Square. This was defended by the Muslim youth. Any attempt to disrupt the national unity in Egypt will be severely punished.

“What happened yesterday unfortunately is the doing of a minority within Egypt who does not want this revolution to succeed. I repeat, a very, very small minority. Next Friday, I invite you and your people to film what is happening in Tahrir Square, where Christians and Muslims, where Egyptians regardless of their religious affiliation, will go down to Tahrir Square, to show their determination to preserve the national unity in Egypt. We want to build a fair, secular equitable, democratic country where there is no difference between an Egyptian and his brother due to difference in religion or for any other ethnic reason. What has happened yesterday is only an exception. We are adamant to preserve the national unity of the Egyptian people, and maintain the spirit of the Tahrir Square.”

The Minister won a round of applause for his remarks.

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