CAIRO – Egypt's tourism minister flew to Tehran on Monday in a bid to lure Iranian tourists to help his country's ailing economy as relations between the two regional heavyweights continues to slowly improve.
Hesham Zazou is heading a 14-person delegation that will spend five days in Iran for meetings with tour operators, travel agents and officials centered on how to promote tourism to Cairo, an Egyptian diplomat traveling with the group said.
The head of Egypt's Civil Aviation Authority, Mohammed Ibrahim Sharif, said the visit by Zazou also aims to develop use of an Iranian-Egyptian accord allowing direct flights between the two countries. To date, he said, no carriers had applied for a license to operate under the agreement, which allows for 28 direct flights per week — 14 from each nation.
The agreement was first signed under former President Hosni Mubarak in 2010.
The Egyptian efforts underline how much has changed since Mubarak was ousted in an uprising two years ago. His successor, President Mohammed Morsi, reached out with a visit to the Shiite Muslim nation just months after winning elections last year. It was the first such trip by an Egyptian leader in decades.
Egypt was once closely allied to Iran and its former ruling shah. The two countries severed relations after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Relations soured even more after Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel.
In a reciprocal first visit by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Egypt earlier this month, he said that Iran will lift visa requirements for Egyptian tourists and businessmen.
He also said he anticipated that many of the eight to 10 million Iranians who holiday abroad every year will start coming to Egypt.
"I came from Iran to say that both people have to support each other, and we consider the progress and strength of Egypt as the progress and strength of Iran," Ahmadinejad told reporters in Cairo at the time.
However, the sight of Iranian women, should they choose to wear the traditional Shiite cloak known as a chador, is likely to anger Egypt's ultraconservative Salafis — Sunni Muslims who follow a doctrine similar to that of the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are regional arch foes. Saudis have accused Iran of trying to spread its variant of Islam in the predominantly Sunni Arab world.
The regional tensions were on display after Ahmadinejad met with Egyptian clerics at the world's foremost seat of Sunni learning, Al-Azhar, in Cairo during his visit. A Shiite cleric who was part of Ahmadinejad's entourage was caught on microphone during a joint press conference telling one of Al-Azhar's clerics not to discuss their disagreements. The Iranian president also told an al-Azhar cleric in front of reporters to talk about "unity and brotherhood."
Despite the friction, Egypt needs the tourism.
The diplomat said that Egypt wants Iranian tourists to help improve the country's economy, since tourism is one of the nation's biggest revenue earners and employs millions of Egyptians. The diplomat was not authorized to speak to the press and thus spoke on condition of anonymity.
Continued turmoil in Egypt has scared away tourists and foreign investors, pushing down foreign currency reserves to less than $14 billion and forcing Cairo to turn to oil-rich Gulf states for loans and handouts.