Amr El Ezabi says now is the best time to plan an event in Egypt. That's exactly the sort of message you might expect from the Chairman of the Egyptian Tourist Authority, but he paints an appealing picture all right. "Imagine preparing an incentive in Luxor," he tells GN Focus on the telephone from Cairo. "Normally, it's difficult to visit the monuments properly because of the thousands of daily visitors. But right now there will be one or two groups — so your guests will have the place to themselves; this is very good for business travel."
Given that Egypt is slowly limping back to normal after pro-democracy protests this January saw long-serving President Hosni Mubarak step down, you'd be forgiven for thinking it's all simply marketing rhetoric.
Across the industry, everyone's heard tales of how busy resorts were transformed into ghost towns overnight. Everybody was badly hit by "depleting occupancy figures", says Jan Hesbeen, General Manager at the Taba Heights Marriott Red Sea Resort in southern Sinai, explaining how tour operators asked almost all their clients to leave in the wake of the protests. The Egyptian Hotels Association said occupancy in the nearby resorts of Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada dropped to 11 per cent from 75 per cent in the weeks after January 25.
But El Ezabi now says business is coming back and that in some cases, the events of what's been called the Arab Spring have actually worked in his country's favour.
"Most countries have lifted the travel ban to Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada and in some case, even to Luxor," he says. In the week of March 7 to 14, Sharm El Sheikh clocked 42,000 tourists, while Hurghada welcomed 30,000, with 270 and 260 planes flying in respectively. "So it's a clear comeback," says El Ezabi. "If we extrapolate that, we may recover between 35 and 40 per cent of normal movement." He hopes to close out the year merely 30 per cent down from last year but admits that the industry will be forced to deal with loss of "billions of dollars" in tourism revenue.
A senior official of the Arab Tourism Organisation said last month the region's industry was reeling from losses of $2 billion — with Egypt worst hit. The North African giant is the region's dominant tourism player, welcoming 14.8 million visitors in 2010, a 17 per cent increase over the previous year. Tourism activity makes up 11.5 per cent of GDP and revenues from tourism were $11 billion (Dh40.4 billion) in 2009, the last year for which figures are available.
Before January's events, the tourism ministry had forecast 16 million tourists for 2011. But after February's arrivals dropped 80 per cent, expectations of a recovery before April were dim.
Yet even in late February, the moment Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the Scandinavian nations greenlit travel to Egypt, demand was back. By May, El Ezabi and his team feel arrivals will equal 50 per cent of last year's numbers, and are hopeful that December will see 90 per cent of last year's figures.
He's particularly optimistic that the GCC's big spenders will be back in force this summer, lured by the recent pro-democracy changes. "Egypt will be a very important destination this summer and I think we will be more appealing to a wider variety of people. Traditionally, visitors from the Gulf have been conservative and rather family-oriented, but now we think we will see people coming to visit modern Egypt."
In a poll conducted by a regional Arabic daily last week, 77 per cent of GCC nationals said they wanted to visit Egypt or Tunisia in the next few months, although a significant number said they would factor in the security situation before finalising arrangements.
At this year's ITB Berlin, a yearly networking event for the global travel industry, Mounir Abdel Nour, Egypt's new tourism minister said his team would push hard to bring tourists back. "We are determined to do whatever it takes to regain the confidence of travellers," he told delegates. "We will advertise, communicate, visit and give incentives."
Yet, for all that, meetings and exhibitions remain an area of concern, admits El Ezabi. "Business travel and the Mice trade will be the most affected in the short term," he says, pointing out that several source markets continue to advise citizens against travelling to Cairo, a key business stop for the region. "I would say it's time to plan events in Cairo with confidence, too, but I must respect what other countries have advised their citizens to do."
For the trade, business is looking up and the Fairmont Heliopolis in Cairo reports that proposal requests are rising. "Obviously the short-term effect has been drastic, however there is a sense of optimism with our local and international partners. We are already seeing an increase in inquiries and requests for meeting space which is the first sign the situation is normalising," says Kent Cooper, Vice-President, Regional Hotel Sales, Middle East and Africa. "We did see an uptick in travel in 2010 and the year proved to be better than anticipated with a significant amount of short-term interest and the return of many incentive programmes that were cancelled in 2009. Looking ahead to 2011, we expect this growth trend to continue with both our leisure and meetings business segments in the region."
Across the country, the industry has already been hard at work pushing out positive messages. Hesbeen has rolled out a slew of special deals to bring business back. "The outlook is sunny and the forecast remains bright with many of the nationalities now back in the hotel enjoying all that Taba Heights Marriott has to offer. It is expected that within the next four to six weeks business will continue to grow and slowly but surely, life will return to normal."
Focus on Bahrain
With Egypt launching new advertising campaigns to lure travellers back to its protest-hit shores, Bahrain must also now face up to the hard graft ahead. The hotel industry on the Isle of Smiles, which relies on a regular calendar of business conferences to keep rooms full, has been devastated by recent political events. One project finance conference has decided to move a long-planned event to Dubai and Bahrain's annual Spring of Culture festival has been downsized. But the worst news has been the postponement of the season-opening Formula One Grand Prix, which draws more than 40,000 every year, scheduled for March 13.
So far, though, the kingdom's tourist representatives are determined to put on a brave face. Organisers of this week's GIBTM say the island is still scheduled to be at the show with a number of industry associates and have not pulled out. At the time of going to press, GN Focus was yet to receive a reply to emails sent out earlier this week.
The big question, though, is to what extent business will recover. The Gulf Hotel said this month that occupancy rates were down some 75 per cent on a year ago and that they were now looking at rates of between 20-30 per cent. "If this unrest lasts for a long time it could result in long-term problems and it could be difficult to rebuild people's confidence in the kingdom," Farouk Almoayyed, Chairman of the Gulf Hotels Group, warned earlier this month.