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8 Nov, 2011

Visit To Egypt Is A Vote For Peace & Democracy – Tourism Minister

Imtiaz Muqbil at the WTM 2011 in London

Egypt again broke new ground in the annals of travel & tourism history by publicly asserting the linkage between tourism, politics and global geopolitics. At yet another lively Press conference on the opening day of the World Travel Market, Tourism Minister Mounir Fakhry El-Nour stressed, “Tourism and politics are interdependent, especially in Egypt at this juncture.” He later went on to assert that the Arab spring could well sweep through every country in the region and that there would be no total Middle East peace until the quest for Palestinian statehood is achieved.

The minister’s comments contribute towards broadening the industry debate into what may have been considered uncharted territory. Egypt is the latest in a series of countries over the last two decades to feel the positive impact of political change. Its official literature now cites the example of Indonesia, another Muslim-majority that jettisoned an aging dictator in 1998 and is now enjoying a tourism boom.

Although the global travel & tourism industry has tended to focus only on economic ups and downs as an influencing factor, the Egyptian minister is now making clear that both local politics and global geopolitics play an equally important role. Effectively, the message is that by visiting Egypt in these critical days of evolution and revolution, people will be helping to advance the forces of peace and democracy.

The conventional wisdom in the past has claimed the visitors don’t vote. Egypt’s new message is that they do, indirectly, and indeed can be a critical contributor to a much wider process of promoting global peace and democracy in ways that industry pundits may have never previously thought of. This makes for a remarkable change in the industry’s strategic positioning statement, taking it well beyond the issues of income and jobs into the realm of popular demand for peace and democracy, without which even economic growth is not possible. The horse has finally been put in front of the cart.

Indeed, Mr El Nour began the Press conference with a briefing first on the country’s political situation and then on the tourism status. “I cannot discuss tourism without giving you some background on the political transition of my country which as you know is intertwined.”

Difficult Transition Period

He noted that the country was undergoing a difficult transition period towards building a new Egypt that is “equitable, secular, democratic and free.” He outlined the various government measures to open up the political process in preparation for the national elections in March 2012 as well as the economic measures such as adjustments in the minimum wage and new budget allocations for key sectors such as health, education and transport.

However, the minister added, “The measures are obviously insufficient and the youth, who led the revolution, is asking for more quicker reforms, and they are eager to see the political and social reforms implemented as soon as possible. Well there’s a balance between what we believe is sustainable and the time transition and that balance is extremely difficult to keep.

“That being said, we are extremely optimistic. It is easy to explain the rationale for our optimism. A democratic society is definitely conducive for all sectors of development growth, including tourism. Even in the short run we are seeing optimistic signs on the political front. We feel that Egyptians have recovered the ownership of their country. The youth are active, putting forward proposals, writing in newspapers, putting up media programmes. The number of candidates in the elections is much higher than in previous elections. These are all definitely positive signs.

“On the economic front we see a lot of improvement. We expect the economy to grow by 3.5% this year. Surprisingly, exports were up by 18% over last year in dollar terms. Tourism is another positive sign. Tourism is bouncing back despite all what has been portrayed by the media as a lack of security. And this (lack of security) is not true. Tourism is bouncing back. In February 2011, the month after the January 25 revolution, visitor arrivals to Egypt fell by 80% over Feb 2010 but the rate of decline has been shrinking month after month and has now narrowed to 20% as of September.

“I am optimistic that this difference will disappear by the 1st quarter of 2102. We expect the number of tourists to reach 11 million by end of this year. (Editor’s Note: Visitor arrivals were 14 million in 2010). In the long run we are extremely optimistic, we plan to double tourism arrivals by 2017. Our plan is to reach 30m arrivals, generating an income of 25 billion dollars.”

Diversification and Upgrading

The minister said this plan is designed to diversify the source of visitor arrivals, and upgrade the quality of tourism products and services. He said the fundamentals of the industry remained strong: an unmatched range of tourism assets, such as its culture, history and beaches; the product mix and the huge efforts being made by the tourism industry. “My team has done everything that is in the book, including media campaigns, advertising, fam trips, incentives to charters. Tour operators, media people, rich and famous people have come and seen that security prevails all over the country.”

He said a key aspect of the rebuilding efforts has been the testimony of the visitors themselves, which has gone some way towards countering the perception conveyed by media reports. Far be it for him to criticise the media, he said, especially as he was sitting before a group of them, but the fact remained that the media “has summarised a whole country of a million square kilometres into one sq. kilometre, which is Tahrir square.”

However, the minister said he was optimistic. “We are going to make it. It is a challenge, it is an uphill struggle and we are going to succeed. The youth, which has made this revolution is active and energised. We know that the road to build a new democratic Egypt will be bumpy but we will make it and we will make it on the political front as much as on the economic and tourism front.”

In view of the minister’s forthright linkage between tourism and politics, I asked him if the same could be expanded to include geopolitics, especially the impact of a wider Middle East peace and statehood for the Palestinians. The minister said that geopolitics and peace was important for the region as a whole. “And Egypt is leading the way. If Egypt is stable, the whole region will be stable and vice versa. The domino effect from Egypt going one way or another is very important and very obvious. The Arab spring does affect tourism. For a layman, knowing that there is turbulence in Syria does affect tourism in Egypt. Knowing that there are problems in Libya, it does affect Egypt. And we hope that stability will quickly restored in this part of the world.” He paused for a bit and added, “The Arab spring might sweep each and every country in the region. The pursuit of human rights and democracy is indivisible and universal.”

Palestinian Statehood

He then elaborated on the Palestinian quest for statehood. “An important part of stability in the region is definitely the Palestinian problem. And it’s been almost 70 years that we have been trying to find a solution and the only possible solution is to create a Palestinian state and a homeland. It is their right and we are continuing to support them. Egypt has been making every diplomatic and political effort to that end, and will continue to do so. Peace is dependent on the region finding a solution to the Palestinian problem.”

The minister admitted that ongoing transition in Egypt had taken its toll. A World Bank meeting to be held in Sharm El Sheikh next year had been postponed. Budgetary cuts had meant that the construction of a new Cairo museum had been delayed by at least one year. One Egyptian expatriate living in the UK said he was keen to invest in Egypt in order to help the revolution succeed but was getting a runaround from the local authorities. The minister told him that he was probably going through the wrong people, and asked the questioner to get in touch directly with the Ministry of Tourism and his team. He said he was adamant that anyone who wanted to help Egypt build the necessary infrastructure to meet the visitor arrival targets would get all the required help.

The minister also discussed highlights of the new marketing campaign which has seen the slogan “Egypt – Where It All Begins” being expanded in a small but critical way. It now reads, “We’re Egypt – Where It All Begins.” This new campaign will seek to represent Egypt in a fresh, relevant way and rebuild the image of the destination. A key objective is to rebuild tourism to Cairo and the Nile Valley, which have been most affected. At the end of this year, the country plans to launch a new product, the long Nile cruise, which the minister described as one of the most beautiful trips anyone can experience.

He was also asked about the prospects of the upcoming national elections and its impact on tourism. He said, “I am cautiously optimistic. I am optimistic that Egyptians will choose correctly (choose leaders who) will hopefully help them to reach their goals and build the new Egypt. I am convinced that we are going to be on the right track by March 15 when the elections will be finished. And of course the impact on tourism will be extremely positive if you are on the right track.”

In view of the minister’s efforts to counter the negative perception of safety issues in Egypt, I asked the minister if travel advisories issued by many of the source-market countries needed to be dispensed with in the age of social media. He said that from the perspective of the issuing governments, they are probably necessary as a means of cautioning their citizens about where or where not to go. However, he added, “There are much fewer demonstrations in revolutionary Egypt that there is any day in Paris or in Rome. And the demonstrations in Egypt are much more peaceful than in Paris or Rome. In the midst of the revolution, in Tahrir square, right in the epicenter, you could see banners raised urging tourists not to leave, and promising to protect them. It’s a fact. The Egyptian layman values tourism. It is a source for income and jobs.”