CAIRO – U.S. tour operators and Egyptian officials are hoping to convince hesitant international travelers that Egypt is now safe and stable enough to resume large-scale tourism.
A delegation of representatives from the U.S. tourism industry visited the country over Easter weekend, meeting with officials from the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and the U.S. Embassy.
Malaka Hilton, CEO of Admiral Travel International Inc., based in Sarasota, Fla., said 90 percent of her company's trips to Egypt have been canceled since the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February.
"There's still that level of uncertainty with what's happening with the government," she said. "The traveler is saying, until it's stable on the government side, that is when we will come back."
Tourism accounts for roughly 14 percent of jobs in Egypt, and the drop in visitors has worsened the economic troubles that helped fuel the revolution.
There are no lines at the King Tut exhibit in the museum in Cairo next to Tahrir Square, and the streets of Giza, home of the pyramids, are nearly empty except for the local residents who depend on tourism for their livelihood.
Ahmed Al Zawawy offers horse and camel rides to people visiting the pyramids , but since the Jan. 25 revolution he's sold three camels and six horses to feed his family and his sole remaining horse. "That is my end, after that I don't know what I will do," Al Zawawy said. "I am living day by day."
At the end of April, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo allowed families of embassy workers to return, and the State Department downgraded its travel warning to an alert advising U.S. citizens of the "possibility of sporadic unrest," while noting that "the security situation in Luxor, Aswan, and the Red Sea resorts ... continues to be calm."
Complicating the outlook for those considering a trip to Egypt or other parts of the Middle East are concerns about the impact of the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound. The State Department issued a general travel warning after the raid urging U.S. citizens to "limit their travel outside of their homes and hotels and avoid mass gatherings and demonstrations," due to the "enhanced potential for anti-American violence."
There have also been increased reports of crime in Cairo, with a smaller police presence in the capital than before the revolution. Unrest in other Middle Eastern countries, from civil war in Libya to violent crackdowns in Syria and Yemen, also make the region a hard sell to travelers.
"There is a limbo state that the government is in right now, " said Tony Gonchar, CEO of the American Society of Travel Agents, who, with Hilton, was part of the group visiting Egypt. He added that the U.S. government's "ability to suggest that Egypt is a safe tourist location" is part of what's needed "for Americans to feel the comfort level to come and visit."
Still, those who do visit Egypt now will find a relative calm, with opportunities for travel upgrades in addition to short lines and small crowds.
"On the whole, the situations are really minimal, and certainly not a danger to our travelers," said Catherine Greteman, CEO of the National Tour Association, also part of the visiting delegation.
Roughly 211,000 foreign visitors came to Cairo in February, a mere 20 percent of the 1.1 million who visited during the same time in 2010, according to the Egyptian government. Visitor numbers improved in March and April to roughly half of the count from last year, according to the Egyptian Travel Authority.
"Even us, we were surprised because beginning the 19th of February we had the first groups coming back. To the Red Sea first, and then to Luxor, and then to Cairo and then the rest of the country," said Amr El-Ezabi of the Egyptian Tourist Authority.
Egypt tourism typically falls off at the end of May as the summer heat increases, then picks up again in the fall and winter. This fall, the normal start of the high season for tourism will coincide with the country's first post-revolution parliamentary elections, followed by presidential elections.
While the Egyptian government hopes that the number of foreign visitors will return to normal levels, it may be a challenge to convince tourists to visit during the unprecedented election period, especially if there are protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Mideast.
Mubarak, his sons and many members of his former government are in prison awaiting trial, and there is uncertainty about how the military leadership that's now running the country will transition into a democratically elected government.
But some Egyptian leaders and tour groups are cautiously trying to promote the elections as a unique selling point for travelers.
"I think you can still easily do your normal visit and still have an added value to be present in Egypt during its first democratic election ever taking place in the last 50 or 60 years," El-Ezabi said.
Steve Adamson, a marketing consultant based in Yorkshire, England, took a cruise around the Red Sea in March. He said the ship was barely 50 percent capacity, and the trip was half-off the usual fare. Walking around various Egyptian ports of call, he said, he "didn't notice anything unusual at all — we could have been anywhere. Totally tranquil and very much business as usual."