Egyptian students rally for return of tourists

As hundreds of Egyptian college students rallied at the iconic pyramids of Giza Friday to promote tourism, camel guide Salah Shabani stood to the side and looked on with sadness.

It's been two weeks since a popular uprising forced President Hosni Mubarak from power, but there has been no return of the crowds of foreigners who come to gaze at the pyramids and get their picture on a camel.

"I used to make 600 Egyptian pounds ($102) a week, or more," said Shabani, 23, who has given visitors rides on his camel, Oscar, since he was a teenager. "Now there is nothing. There are no tourists."

Shabani, who married two months ago, said he worries he won't be able to support his wife and has doubts about having children. He said he didn't regret the uprising — many Egyptians are still savoring a victory that has captured the attention of people around the world and sparked similar protests across the Middle East — but the reality that it could have negative consequences has set in.

Tourism in this tourist mecca known for pyramids, mummies, colorful markets and the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh has all but come to a halt since the uprising began in January and eventually forced Mubarak out on Feb. 11.

About 210,000 tourists fled the country in the last week of January, costing Egypt about $178 million, according to the government's statistics bureau, and cancellations for February add up to an estimated revenue loss of $825 million.

That is a lot for a nation that gets 5 percent to 6 percent of its gross domestic product from tourism, according to several estimates. As many as 2 million Egyptians work in tourism.

Students who organized Friday's rally said they hoped to combat any perception that Egypt is not safe. They painted their faces with the Egyptian flag, carried signs that said, "Trust me, I'm Egyptian," and wore black T-shirts that said: "I love Egypt."

"If I were a tourist, and seeing all the recent events, I might be afraid to be around here," said George Wagdy, a 23-year-old college graduate who just finished his military service and is looking for a job as an English and Spanish translator. "But what we are saying now that Egypt is safe and everything is back to normal."

Still, there were only a handful of foreigners at the pyramids, a far different scene than the usual dozens of packed tour buses coming and going all day.

Penelope Martinez, a 29-year-old from Mexico City, said she and her traveling companion, her 18-year-old sister, seriously considered canceling their trip.

"A lot of friends and family said we shouldn't come," said Martinez, who noted that many people perceive Mexico as unsafe after much drug-related violence and kidnappings in recent years.

"But I thought that if I feel safe going out in my country, I should feel OK here," she said. "We have only been here two days, but so far we feel very safe."