At 9.30am in Luxor’s Valley of the Kings, the sun is high in the sky and inside the famed 63 tombs it’s starting to get humid. This should be peak time for visitors, but there are few footprints in the dust leading to each tomb. About 50 tourists stroll in and out of the tombs, or fan themselves in the shade. “This is about as busy as it gets,” said Aamer Ibrahim, a Luxor native who has worked in tourism all his professional life. He gestured at a spot about 200 metres from the entrance to the tomb of Ramses IV. “People used to have to queue – the line would stretch to there.”
There is a guilty, selfish pleasure in standing alone in the tomb of Tutankhamun, or having the stars and hieroglyphs in the tomb of Ramses IV almost to myself. But for an industry reliant on E£100 (£9) entry tickets to the Valley of the Kings (plus extra to see Tutankhamun’s mummy and gilded sarcophagus), this is a disaster. Egyptian tourism is heavily pegged to its the political fortunes.
A revolution in early 2011, a popularly backed military coup in 2013, and a series of high-profile airline disasters, beginning with the downing of Metrojet 7K9268 in Sharm el-Sheikh in October 2015, have shattered an industry that made up 11.4% of Egypt’s GDP in 2015. A slow drip of turmoil has ensured that any gains the industry made since the shock of 2011 have been reversed: figures released by Egypt’s official statistics agency, Capmas, show that tourist numbers in July this year were down 41.9%, compared to the same period in 2015. Critics say that until Egypt is truly transparent about the reasons behind the Metrojet crash, as well as the crash of EgyptAir flight 804 in May this year, tourists won’t return with confidence.
Nonetheless, there are hopes that Russia could lift its flight ban on Egypt before the end of the year, and Germany recently restarted direct flights to the popular Sinai resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. The town was previously the main generator of tourism for Egypt and a keystone for UK tour companies: luxury operator Kuoni told the Guardian it has seen “a significant drop in holidays to Egypt in the past five years, and particularly since the suspension of flights into Sharm el-Sheikh”. Thomas Cook added: “Since 2012, the proportion of our customers travelling to Egypt has dropped from under 6% to under 3%.”
A ban on direct flights from the UK to Sharm el-Sheikh remains, but there is no ban on visiting the area – for now tourists have to fly there via Cairo. And Heathrow recently reinstated a direct EgyptAir flight to Luxor. “The good news for us, regarding the resumption of direct flights to Luxor, is that it sends a good, calming message to potential travellers that the situation is stable and improving,” said John Telfer of Explore Worldwide. The company has seen a 75% reduction in bookings to Egypt since 2011, with this year’s figures a 20% drop on the already low booking figures of 2015. “The question [everyone is asking] is, is Egypt stable? This is why the Luxor flight is good news for the industry as a whole.”
At the Sonesta St George in Luxor, once visited by former president Hosni Mubarak, lines of sun loungers await bronzed guests and rows of empty tables fill the restaurants during what should be the start of high season. At the famed Winter Palace, formerly the home of the Egyptian royal family, ornate gold-and-glass chandeliers hang over empty brocade sofas, awaiting visitors. The Winter Palace is currently administered by Sofitel – like the vast majority of large Egyptian hotels, it is funding from a large international chain that keeps the doors open and the staff employed during a downturn this severe.
But many in the tourism industry feel the Cairo government has hung them out to dry. They say government pledges to resuscitate the industry to 15 million annual visitors haven’t been backed by logistical or financial help for those actually working on the ground. “The government doesn’t care about tourists,” said Ahmed Ramadan Boghdady, owner of the New Monaliza souvenir stall that sits close to the famed Hatshepsut temple. “You should care for people whose jobs depend on this – the guides, those guys selling water. They only care about us once we have money. Civil servants with a monthly wage don’t care about tourists.”
For Boghdady, a day of sales used to be E£600 (£55). Now, it’s barely E£200 (£18), or sometimes nothing at all. He points at the rows of carved sphinxes, busts of Nefertiti and various pharaohs that line the shop, themselves symbols of Egyptian industry: black granite from Aswan, sparkling white alabaster from Luxor, or stones from Sinai, Sohag and Minya, all carved by local artisans . Boghdady says that tourists spend less, now that a holiday to Egypt can be done on a smaller budget. “Yesterday, there was a bus full of tourists here, a big bus of 400 people. They spent [only] E£245 (£22.50)! Eighty per cent of my artists aren’t working – look at how many pieces we have here!” he exclaimed. “Look, the rows are three deep; before it was one!”
For its part, Egypt’s government has worked to reopen attractions such as the tombs of King Seti and Queen Nefertari earlier this year, as well as four tombs used to bury royal butlers which reopened in late 2015, but adding to the rich array of attractions has done little to get visitor numbers back to their previous highs.
The economic ripples of this decline reach far beyond the well-known tourist spots. On Luxor’s main Television Street downtown, rows of shoe and clothes shops stand to attention under fluorescent lights, but no one is buying. The Areeka cafe on Television Street could seat up to 100 people, who come to sip ice-cold fruit juice or puff on a shisha pipe, but there are few tables taken. Owner Emad El Nubi says “there is no comparison” between a good day’s business today and pre-2011.
“Everything slowed down. We have no income. Prices have gone up,” he said. El Nubi’s family has also been forced to close their business producing rice, honey and sugar because of a lack of hard currency. The low number of tourists has sent Egypt’s economy on a continued downward spiral, even as the government insists that mega-projects, such as the second Suez Canal channel, would reverse the country’s fortunes. Egypt recently accepted a $12bn loan from the IMF, requiring it to slice further into subsidies and, in all likelihood, devalue its currency for a second time in a year. The result has been price hikes for basic goods and services, not to mention the sudden introduction of VAT, that have hit ordinary Egyptians in the pocket from Aswan to Alexandria.
Reduced numbers of tourists also mean a lack of funds. “Per day, we get maybe 20 people now,” said Samia Abdel Aziz, head of the Luxor Museum. The museum recently increased ticket prices to the equivalent of E£100 (£9) from E£80 (£7.40), and added a special E£50 (£4.50) ticket for taking photos, without flash, of the exhibits. The revenue from ticket sales from the museum, as well as other historical sites around the country, are pooled and fed back to the Ministry of Antiquities, which maintains a separate budget from the rest of the government, funded in large part by these ticket sales. But decreased sales means less money for projects like the long-awaited Grand Egyptian Museum near Cairo, designed to draw in new visitors once it opens in 2018.
A drop in visitor numbers is also tied to security. At the Karnak temple, an Egyptian guide gestures to a statue of Ramses II and his wife Nefertari as he conducts a tour in fluent Mandarin, while another leads a group in Russian. There is no shortage of trained guides, but safety remains a concern – Karnak witnessed a rare but troubling attack by a suicide bomber and two gunmen in June last year. The Ministry of Antiquities funds metal detectors and bag scanners at heritage sites across Egypt: a drop in funds means less money to keep these in top condition.
Ibrahim believes that bringing tourists back is a “three-stage process”: first the Germans, then the Brits – then the Americans, a final sign that things are truly booming again. When a burly American tourist with a GoPro strapped to his head and a camera atop a selfie-stick boards the train to the Hatshepsut temple, Ibrahim laughs with him and adds he should tell all his friends to come to Egypt. “Tell them yourself,” he replies, pointing his camera at Ibrahim. “Please, please come to Egypt, we are waiting for you!” Ibrahim jokingly pleads.
But perhaps the solution to Egypt’s tourism woes lies elsewhere. At the tomb of Horemheb, a ruler known for bringing stability back to the country, visitor Vinod Ramanathan from India said Egypt could easily become a top destination for Indians. “Indians want to travel, as we have more disposable income now, and this is the place for that,” he said. “People need to know about this country, and they don’t right now … you could have many Indians travelling here.”
Other destinations in Egypt
Cairo has never had any shortage of hotel rooms, and large hotel chains have continued a steady, if depreciated, flow of business since 2011, mostly from visitors from the Gulf. Visitors to Cairo can choose from over 15,000 brand-name hotel rooms, a 7% growth on 2015, according to a recent report by estate agency Colliers.
Large chains may be able to weather the storm, but Cairo’s smaller venues have suffered, including the much-loved Windsor Hotel in downtown Cairo (double from $50 B&B). “[Business] isn’t good now but at least it’s a little better than before,” said owner Wafik Doss, whose family have owned the Windsor since 1966. “We [have] started having people from all over the world; before it was just Egyptians for some time.”
The UK Foreign Office continues to give Cairo a green rating, telling travellers to “see our travel advice before travelling”, as security remains a concern. A shooting by the Giza pyramids in 2015, as well as the bombing of the Italian consulate adjacent to central Tahrir Square in the same year, have put off many foreign visitors, although the city continues to attract business visitors from elsewhere in the Middle East.
Sharm el-Sheikh was the most popular tourist resort in Egypt and a keystone for UK tour companies: tour operator Kuoni told the Guardian it has seen “a significant drop in holidays to Egypt in the past five years, and particularly since the suspension of flights into Sharm el-Sheikh.”
Nonetheless, there are hopes that Russia could lift its flight ban on Egypt before the end of the year, and Germany recently restarted direct flights to the popular Sinai resort town. There is little indication yet as to whether direct British flights will resume, although Egypt hired British firm Restrata to train Egyptian airport security personnel across the country, including at Sharm el-Sheikh.
Although the FCO will not currently allow direct flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, it doesn’t prevent British tourists from going to the resort, so many simply fly to Cairo and travel on from there.
North of Sharm el-Sheikh, tourism spots previously favoured for being off the beaten track are struggling. Seaside towns like Dahab and Nuweiba, which once played host to many eager British and Russian tourists, as well as others from all over Europe, are now empty of all but the most dedicated visitors. The recent addition of the CoworkInn to Dahab’s collection of cafes and bars is designed to bring back both Egyptian and foreign travellers who feel like working by the beach. Even so, the FCO continues to advise against “all but essential travel” to the two towns, in part because they are closer to North Sinai, which has witnessed a spike in activity since 2013 from Sinai Province, a group now affiliated with Isis.
Along the Red Sea coast, the town of Hurghada was previously popular with Russian, British and German visitors. A report by Capmas found that Russian visits to Egypt were down 60%, British 17.5% and German visits by 10.4% in July this year, compared to 2015. But Hurghada has begun to host many of the foreign visitors put off by travel to Sinai while, further north, the towns of Ain Sokhna and Gouna are increasingly visited by Egyptians looking for a break.