More than one million Egyptians dependent on the tourism industry are bound to lose their jobs this year, should the pending war in Iraq become a reality. For a country already ravaged by economic problems and high unemployment, a threat to their tourism industry is not good news.

Tourism, the country's single biggest foreign currency earner and job provider, is bracing itself for a 60 per cent downturn in foreign earnings this year in the event of a war in Iraq.

Currently at least one million people are directly dependent on this industry for their jobs and a further 1.2 million indirectly, which together accounts for about 13 per cent of Egypt's total job market.

"We expect a $2 billion loss in foreign earnings this year in the event of an Iraq war," said Dr. Mahmoud El Beltagi, Egypt's Minister of Tourism, in an interview with Gulf News in Cairo.

"This is going to be more serious than the aftermath of September 11, where we saw the number of tourists dropping by almost one million from 5.5 million in 2002 to 4.6 million in 2001.

"But we fought back and we're just about back to our previous record number with an excellent performance of 5.2 million tourists in 2002, when we have a new crisis looming. It is a pity that the success of the Egyptian tourism industry is always subject to crises in the Middle East," said Dr. Beltagi.

Despite this gloomy forecast a mood of optimism still prevails in Egyptian tourism circles. Dr. Beltagi is confident that Egypt 'will ride this one out' just like they have done several times in the past.

Tourism is Egypt's most important earner of foreign currency, accounting for 24.9 per cent of total income last year. The industrial sector was in second place (24.7 per cent) followed by worker's remittances (21.3 per cent) in the third place.

The balance of foreign income is made up from Suez Canal dues (13.2 per cent), the petroleum industry (13.9 per cent) and the agricultural sector (2 per cent).

The industry is regarded as the main driving force of the Egyptian economy, currently providing 2.2 million job opportunities or 12.6 per cent of total employment according to the latest figures released by the Egyptian Centre for Economic Studies (ECES).

According to the World Fact Book, Egypt's estimated population was 72 million in 2002 and increasing by 1.2 million (1.66 per cent) per year. The unemployment rate was 12 per cent in 2001 whereas 22.9 per cent of the population lived below the poverty line.

Despite the short-term gloomy forecast caused by a possible Iraq war, the long-term projections of the Egyptian tourism industry look very promising with an expected annual growth rate of 6.7 per cent up to the year 2020.

Diversification in the tourism industry is also a high priority for Egypt whose tourism department is a bustling think tank of new ideas.

Tapping into the sports and conference tourism market and introducing cultural and religious tours are but a few of the new ideas being explored.

Egypt prides itself on the fact that it is generally a safe and peaceful country where Muslims, Christians and Jews have lived together in harmony for centuries.

The low crime rate also makes it an ideal family tourist destination.