Published February 20, 2011
CAIRO – The wind-swept pyramids of Giza were virtually deserted Sunday, symbols not just of the might and culture of the pharaohs but also the damage that Egypt's upheaval has inflicted on tourism, a pillar of the economy.
Just two dozen foreign tourists were seen by midday at the wondrous monuments, where thousands flocked daily before protesters launched an uprising in late January that toppled the president. Camels-for-hire stood in the sand, bereft of riders. Subdued vendors clung to their postcards and tiny pyramid sculptures.
Military-ruled Egypt is largely calm for now, despite a surge in labor protests after the Feb. 11 ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. But the nation is as fragile as it is hopeful, and fear of a backslide into chaos is likely to deter many visitors in the short term, even as the caretaker government and homegrown Facebook campaigns declare that Egypt is safe for tourism.
Antiquities officials tried to kickstart an industry that employs as many as 2 million Egyptians, saying "all Pharaonic, Coptic, Islamic and modern sites" reopened Sunday. Six museums in Cairo, and Luxor and Aswan on the Nile river, also reopened, and other museums plan to do the same soon.
The heavily guarded Egyptian Museum on the edge of Tahrir Square in Cairo, the backdrop to intense street battles and the target of looters who stole some small artifacts, was one of the places that welcomed its first visitors since the crisis.
At the height of the unrest, military vehicles blocked access to the pyramids in the desert on Cairo's outskirts. They reopened Feb. 9, hosting a trickle of foreign visitors who ignored the travel warnings of their governments.
"I wanted to see this world wonder," said Briton Paul Davis, a geography teacher who booked his Egyptian vacation in November and had been on the verge of canceling. "I thought 'Why not? Let's just go through with it.' I think it was worth taking the risk."
Davis, a veteran traveler who plans to post daily video of his trip on the Internet for his high school students, said he arrived Saturday night and was staying at a hotel near the airport as a precaution. He had feared he might run into checkpoints or anti-Western sentiment on the streets, but felt more at ease after some time on the ground.
Davis said his students were excited about his adventure and could not resist a few jokes at his expense before he left, telling him: "I hope we don't have to end up rescuing you.'"
Another visitor on his own was Frank van Dalen, an Amsterdam city councilor who booked his trip soon after Mubarak resigned. He headed to a celebration rally at Tahrir Square on Friday, shortly after checking in at his hotel. He plans to use what he has learned from the protesters in "political fights" in the Netherlands.
"What you see here is that when you push people hard enough in a negative way, they'll just stand up and take over," van Dalen said. Another important lesson, he said, was the people's willingness to organize in the absence of government, picking up trash, tending to the sick and taking care of their own security.
Van Dalen also plans to visit the Valley of the Kings at Luxor and a resort on the Red Sea coast, which was spared the chaos that swept Cairo and other cities.
"I can find the beach anywhere, but you can't find a revolution," he said.
Egypt has estimated the total losses during the unrest at over 10 billion Egyptian pounds ($1.7 billion), with more than half linked to tourism.
The government's statistical bureau said about 210,000 tourists fled the country in the last week of January, costing Egypt about $178 million. Cancellations for February, however, add up to an estimated revenue loss of $825 million.
Tourism accounts for 5 percent to 6 percent of the country's gross domestic product, according to several estimates.
A few tourists have signed up for heavily discounted tours to Egypt. One German couple at the pyramids said they booked a weeklong trip, including flights, hotels and meals, for just 500 euros ($685). Tourist lodging nationwide is mostly empty, despite offers at some four-star hotels of as little as $20 or $30 a night.
Egyptian tourism has recovered from war and unrest in the past. Islamic militants killed 62 people, most of them foreign tourists, in a 1997 attack in the ruins at Luxor. The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks by al-Qaida hit tourism in the Middle East, as did 2005 bombings in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh.
In the early 1970s, when Egypt was between wars with Israel and its economy was on a war footing, visitors to the Egyptian Museum saw blacked out windows and sandbag emplacements on the grounds and the pyramids were, as now, often deserted.
There was a burst of activity at the pyramids on Sunday when several dozen Egyptian university students turned up with national flags and signs that said "Don't forget Egypt" and "We are waiting for you."
They planned to upload images and video of their gathering onto Facebook and YouTube as part of a campaign to attract tourists back to Egypt, though they acknowledged the challenges of convincing the world that all was well right now.
The few visitors to the grand stone structures felt a particular awe, recognizing that the tranquility of being almost alone in their presence was a rare privilege. That joy mixed with unease for tour guide Attiya Shawky, whose income has shriveled.
"For the first time ever in my life, we come here to the pyramids and there's nobody here," he said. "I don't know if it's my lucky or unlucky day."