Egypt took pride of place at the world’s biggest travel trade show, ITB in Berlin, last week.
The country’s dominating presence as official partner extended to sponsoring the shuttle buses around the 26 exhibition halls, making the ‘Egypt, where it all begins’ logo a welcome sight for the footsore.
The country was possibly the world’s first tourist destination (the ancient traveller Herodotus wrote an account of his journey there in the fifth century BC) and has been on package travel itineraries since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.
It has suffered its share of setbacks to tourism, with bomb attacks on Red Sea resorts (88 died in a single attack on Sharm el-Sheikh in 2005), occasional kidnappings and gun attacks on trains and coaches carrying tourists regularly through the 1990s. The country has always bounced back.
The Egyptian Revolution of January-February last year was something different. There were incidents of violence during the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, but the uprising was overwhelmingly popular and remarkably peaceful in ejecting a dictator.
There have been atrocities since, most terribly at the beginning of February this year when 74 people were killed at a football march in Port Said, during what appears to have been an orchestrated assault. This was followed by the well-publicised kidnapping of foreign tourists in Sinai.
Yet despite it all, more than one million British nationals visited Egypt last year and did so happily and untroubled. UK visitor numbers were down about 38% year on year, but were not bad in the circumstances and serve to emphasise the country’s enduring attraction.
So when Egyptian tourism minister Mounir Fakhri Abdel Nour addressed a packed press conference at ITB, I expected more than a ritual denunciation of the media for damaging the image of Egypt. “The main problem is the perception of Egypt,” he said. “The media gives a completely wrong impression. The perception is that security does not prevail in Egypt [and] this is wrong.”
I have few concerns about security in Egypt and would not hesitate to visit, but is the media’s coverage really the sole issue?
Abdel Nour talked of a £6-million-plus marketing campaign, of attracting “30 million tourists a year by 2017” and argued: “I’m talking about the new, united Egypt.” But the truth is Egypt is not united.
The slogan “We are Egypt” is a good one. However, Egypt is divided, its society polarised between the army, established authorities and their supporters on one side who wish to go little or no further in changing the country and an awakened mass of people on the other who want more.
That is what happens in a revolution and Egypt’s is unfinished. The price of an unfinished revolution can be bloody, but for now the main price is instability. This has little or no impact on tourist areas, of course. The resorts are untroubled and I would happily visit Cairo and Tahrir Square.
Abdel-Nour and the liberal Wafd Party of which he is a leading member are somewhat in the middle of this unfinished revolution. The minister has talked of last year as “a turning point” and the situation today as “a new beginning”. He has bemoaned the media’s focus on Tahrir Square.
Yet he became minister of tourism in February 2011 as a direct consequence of the revolution and of events in Tahrir Square.
It is absurd to suggest the media is at fault for reporting on the unresolved tensions in Egypt and a mistake to believe a marketing campaign can successfully convey an image of a unity that does not exist.
So I find myself siding with Michael Frenzel, the head of German group Tui - the parent of Tui Travel - who insisted at ITB: “Political stability is a must. It is not a matter of marketing campaigns. If you do not have political stability you cannot overcome a [negative] perception through a marketing campaign.”
Political stability can come in one of two ways: resolution or repression of the tensions producing instability.
I’m sure Abdel-Nour agrees the revolution of 2011 was wholly welcome and the change long overdue. The question is whether democratisation will proceed, the army withdraw from public life and the living standards of the mass of people improve.
As it is, the direction Egypt will take hangs in the balance between democratisation and improvement on the one hand, and repression and declining living standards on the other.
In that sense, fresh protests and the focus on Tahrir Square are not a problem for tourism to surmount or to sweep over. They are the key to a better future for Egypt and its tourism.
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