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How Egypt is overcoming the curse of the pharaohs

A series of terrorist attacks and periods of civil unrest have brought Egypt’s once-powerful tourism industry to its knees. Emily Cashen explores what can be done to tempt travellers back to the land of the pharaohs

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How Egypt is overcoming the curse of the pharaohs
The Pyramids of Giza, Egypt 

Prior to 2011, Egypt was one of the world’s hottest tourist destinations. From the immaculate beaches of Sharm el-Sheikh to the archaeological delights of Luxor, the nation provided the perfect combination of culture and relaxation, welcoming up to 17 million tourists a year at its peak. But then, almost overnight, everything changed.

As morning broke on January 25, 2011, tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets in almost every major town and city across the country. Demanding an end to President Mubarak’s 30 years of autocratic rule, the protestors were undeterred by waves of tear gas and water cannon fire, standing firm against the encroaching police presence.

Three days later, more than one million Egyptians flooded the streets in support of the uprising, with heavy gunfire raining down on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. In the weeks that followed, more than 800 civilians lost their lives, prompting governments around the world to hastily issue travel advisories and evacuate their citizens from Egypt.

Despite Egypt’s efforts to ease travellers’ anxieties, the Luxor Massacre was only the first in a disturbing pattern of attacks that targeted the country’s tourists

Despite the situation stabilising after Mubarak’s historic ousting, security threats have continued to plague the nation’s once-flourishing tourism industry. In 2015, just as tourists began to tentatively return to South Sinai’s famous turquoise shores, a Russian passenger plane was brought down in the region, killing all 224 on board.

A Sinai-based branch of the jihadi group Islamic State of Syria and the Levant later claimed responsibility for the incident, declaring it to be an act of retaliation against Russian air strikes in Syria. In response to the attack, Russia cancelled all direct flights to Egypt, and the UK soon followed suit, halting direct flights to Sharm el-Sheikh.

Between them, the UK and Russia had accounted for more than half of all arrivals in Egypt, and these flight bans devastated the nation’s fragile tourism industry. With fears over terror threats lingering long into 2017, Egyptian tourism now stands at the most crucial juncture in its long history.

Tainted by terror
While these recent events have indeed taken their toll on Egyptian tourism, it is not the first time the nation has had to quell security fears among travellers. Home to a veritable treasure trove of archaeological delights, Egypt first began to capitalise on international interest in its ancient culture in the mid-1970s, easing visa restrictions and establishing embassies in many European nations.

In 1976, the Egyptian Government emphasised the role of tourism in its ambitious Five Year Plan, allocating 12 percent of its overall budget to improvements to public infrastructure, including the construction and renovation of hotels. These efforts soon paid off, with tourist numbers skyrocketing from below 100,000 to 1.8 million in 1981. For some years, the industry went from strength to strength, with Luxor’s Valley of the Kings and Giza’s famous pyramid complex teeming with crowds of awestruck travellers. However, it was not long before this burgeoning industry felt the first sting of terrorism.

“The real problems began in 1997, when tourists were shot at the terrible Luxor Massacre,” said Joann Fletcher, celebrated Egyptologist and host of the BBC Two series Immortal Egypt. “About a month after the attack, we went to Egypt to excavate a remote site in the desert, and we saw an immediate difference – there were virtually no tourists at all.”

This sudden drop in tourist numbers is perhaps unsurprising, as the Luxor Massacre was then the deadliest terrorist attack to have taken place on Egyptian soil, leaving 62 dead at the ancient Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. To make matters worse, the massacre was a deliberate, targeted attack on tourists, with victims killed execution-style at one of Egypt’s ‘must-visit’ tourist sites.

Fatalities in Egyptian terrorist attacks:

62

Luxor Massacre

34

Sinai Hotel bombings

88

Sharm el-Sheikh bombings

Understandably, the event left tourists deeply shaken, with many cancelling scheduled trips to the region as security fears set in. In the years that followed, the industry slowly managed to recover some of this lost ground, ramping up security measures at hotels, airports and tourist hotpots in a bid to ease travellers’ anxieties.

But, despite these efforts, the Luxor Massacre became the first in a disturbing pattern of attacks that targeted tourists over the next decade. In 2004, three popular Sinai hotels were bombed, leaving 34 people dead. Less than a year later, extremists targeted the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, with multiple bombs killing 88 people in what became the deadliest terrorist attack in Egyptian history.

Remarkably, the tourism industry managed to bounce back fairly rapidly from these tragic incidents, with 2010 proving to be the sector’s most profitable year on record. Indeed, revenue from tourism reached an all-time high of $12.5bn in 2010. While the Egyptian Revolution and its aftermath have once more dented tourism inflows, the terrorist threat now appears to have diminished under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

Economy in ruins
In the shadows of the largely deserted Pyramids of Giza, local hotels and businesses have been crippled by the recent downturn in tourism. Prior to the 2011 revolution, tourism had become one of the nation’s leading sources of income, employing around 12 percent of the active workforce at its peak in 2010. Last year, revenue from tourism fell to just $3.6bn, down 44.3 percent from the previous year, and representing just a fraction of its 2010 peak.

With the Egyptian economy already struggling with civil unrest and political instability, this trough in tourism has sent the nation’s finances into a prolonged downward spiral. In November 2016, Egypt won approval for a $12bn loan from the IMF, with the bailout intended to pull the country out of its deep economic crisis. While the loan may provide some immediate relief, there are rumours the government may still be forced to devalue its currency for the second time in a year.

In another significant blow to the nation’s struggling economy, international businesses have followed the lead of holiday companies and have started to scale back operations in Egypt. In 2013, General Motors halted its Egyptian operations indefinitely, closing its Cairo plant and offices due to fears of violence. The same year, Royal Dutch Shell also closed its offices in Egypt, and started restricting business travel to the region. Meanwhile, UK oil giant BP pulled more than 100 expatriate staff in the wake of the 2011 revolution.

Aside from this devastating loss of international business, the downturn has also hit ordinary Egyptians, many of whom depend on tourism as their main source of income. Indeed, many local economies in the Sinai Peninsula and around the ancient city of Luxor are almost entirely based on tourism, rendering them extremely fragile and vulnerable to external shocks. With this crucial source of income so dramatically decreased, poverty rates are rising rapidly in Egypt, skyrocketing 48 percent between 2013 and 2016.

Local tour guides have been left struggling to feed their families, as the drop in tourism has coincided with price hikes on basic goods and services

Local tour guides have been left struggling to feed their families, as the drop in tourism has coincided with price hikes on basic goods and services. In many ways, it’s these local communities that have truly borne the brunt of Egypt’s prolonged security crises.
“There’s real, genuine poverty in Egypt now,” said Fletcher. “In local communities, all the different generations hone their skillsets to provide for tourists. The Egyptian people are natural hosts, and to see them suffer like this is really dreadful.”

Crumbling culture
This slump in tourism is also having a worrying impact on Egypt’s ancient cultural heritage. From the Great Sphinx of Giza to the Temple of Karnak, the North African nation is home to many marvellous wonders of the ancient world, all painstakingly preserved by the Ministry of Antiquities. In the years prior to the 2011 revolution, a steady stream of ticket sales to these historical sites and museums ensured regular upkeep, but fewer visitors now means less money for crucial conservation projects. In 2010, the Ministry of Antiquities took in approximately $220m from ticket sales. By 2015, however, this had dwindled to just $38m, significantly denting the ministry’s conservation budget.

Caring for the country’s rich heritage is no small order: more than 38,000 full-time employees are required to manage the nation’s antiquities, including specialised technicians, inspectors and Egyptologists. With funds now running low, restoration is given priority, meaning several planned excavations have been postponed or abandoned. The authorities argue that any treasures that have been buried for 5,000 years can wait another five years to be discovered, but these excavation setbacks have frustrated eager Egyptologists and archaeologists.

“Egypt is so rich in archaeological heritage,” explained Fletcher. “They’ve had tens of thousands of years of ancient culture, and it’s all still there beneath the ground. We’ve really only just scratched the surface of Ancient Egypt.”

In addition to these abandoned excavations, newly planned projects have also struggled to get off the ground. In 2002, then-President Hosni Mubarak laid the foundation stone of the Grand Egyptian Museum, an archaeological museum situated close to the famous Giza pyramids. More than five times bigger than the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square, the 60,000sq ft project was billed as a saviour of tourism, and is due to house King Tutankhamun’s full tomb collection.

Despite these ambitious aims, progress has been slow, and construction is still ongoing some 15 years after its ceremonial launch. In May 2015, the Ministry of Antiquities announced the museum would be partially opened to the public in May 2018, but there have been few updates on the project’s progress in the years since.

Egypt’s cultural heritage is a source of great pride for its citizens, and this downturn in funding from ticket sales is another blow to the nation’s damaged psyche. Despite the civil unrest and brief lawlessness following the 2011 revolution, Egypt’s archaeological riches have remained largely unharmed. Indeed, rather than taking advantage of the ensuing chaos to ransack local museums, many Egyptians went out of their way to protect their treasured sites during this period of unrest.

“There was this wonderful moment during the revolution when the local Cairo people came and stood outside the Egyptian Museum, linking hands and making a human chain around the building,” said Fletcher. “In that moment, you could see how protective the Egyptian people are of their heritage, and the lengths they’ll go to in order to defend it.”

A slump in tourism is also having a worrying impact on Egypt’s ancient cultural heritage, cutting funding to preservation efforts

The great return
As President Sisi’s government looks to rebuild the Egyptian economy, reversing the decline in tourism is a matter of priority. In an effort to tempt travellers back to the land of the pharaohs, the Egyptian authorities are fully committing themselves to alleviating tourist fears and showcasing the best the nation has to offer.

Security measures are top of the agenda, and some $50m has already been invested in order to upgrade airport security across the nation. The Egyptian Government has also enlisted the help of private security firm Restrata in order to train 7,000 new security staff, in the hopes an increased security presence will effectively quell any fears of terrorism among air passengers.

Of course, the highly contested UK and Russian flight bans continue to pose a significant obstacle to tourism in Egypt, but the authorities are optimistic both bans will be lifted over the course of the next year. What’s more, in the wake of recent terror attacks in western tourist hotspots, many are now questioning the validity of these sweeping bans.

Tourism in Egypt:

$12.5bn

Revenue (2010)

$3.6bn

Revenue (2016)

$220m

Ticket sales to historic sites (2010)

$38m

Ticket sales to historic sites (2015)

“I find it quite bizarre that people don’t think twice about spending a weekend in Paris or London, but will rule out Egypt,” said Fletcher. “In what sense are flights to Egypt that much more dangerous?”

Along with improved security measures, the Egyptian authorities are hoping to reignite international interest in the country by highlighting new archaeological discoveries in the region. In March, archaeologists unearthed a large pharaonic statue beneath the dusty streets of a Cairo slum, marking one of the most exciting discoveries in recent years. The ancient statue is thought to depict Pharaoh Psamtik I, who ruled Egypt between 664 and 610 BC. If the statue does indeed belong to Psamtik, then it will be the largest statue from the Late Period of Ancient Egypt to have ever been discovered.

This positive press attention has also been complemented by sensitive and engaging portrayals of Egypt by western media outlets. Last year, Fletcher’s Immortal Egypt truly brought Ancient Egypt alive, providing viewers with never-before-seen footage of Pharaoh Amenhotep III’s magnificent mortuary temple. Travelling from site to spectacular site, Fletcher not only emphasised the nation’s cultural richness, but also its remarkable safety.

“On the Immortal Egypt series, we were trying to show Egypt as it truly is,” explained Fletcher. “It really does have so much to offer, and if anyone is still worried about security issues, then they should take a look at their own backyard before they dismiss Egypt.”

21st-century tombs
Just as new discoveries continue to be unearthed in Egypt, the visitor experience at the nation’s top archaeological sites is evolving too. Thanks to recent advances in technology, tourists can now enjoy a more immersive experience than ever, bringing them deeper into the enchanting world of the ancient Egyptians.

In 2014, an exact replica of King Tutankhamun’s tomb was unveiled near the original site in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor. Created using cutting-edge 3D technology, the facsimile allows crowds of tourists to experience the full splendour of the boy king’s final resting place without putting additional pressure on the original tomb. For those keen to take the experience one step further, advances in virtual reality (VR) allow tourists to truly step back in time. Using VR headsets, tourists can fully immerse themselves in the land of the pharaohs, exploring the nation’s great monuments as they would have stood some 3,000 years ago.

Such exciting technological innovations are breathing new life into Egypt’s established tourist hotspots, providing a fresh way for tourists to interact with the nation’s rich cultural heritage. And yet, their uses extend far beyond the realm of tourism. Recent breakthroughs have also revolutionised archaeology and excavation, allowing experts to learn more about this ancient culture without the risk of damaging any artefacts.

“We can now use satellite imagery to study sites from space, as well as using laser scanning to study mummies, for example,” said Fletcher. “The less we physically engage with these remains, the better, and this allows us to keep on learning remotely.”

These technological advances are bringing us closer to Ancient Egypt than we could ever have imagined; archaeologists and tourists alike are able to learn about this ancient culture in immense detail, from the physical attributes of the nation’s rulers, to the significance of the monuments they left behind.

“The ancient Egyptians wanted to be remembered, that’s why they built these marvellous sites,” said Fletcher. “The ancient people were so keen on preserving what they were doing… To ignore that would be a disservice to them.”

Thus, as Egypt attempts to attract tourists back to its ancient sites, the nation is not only fighting for its financial future, but also for its immortal past.

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