Reporting by Nariman Amr AboulMagd & Mohamed Khairat
For the past three years, Egypt’s ancient and extraordinary tourist locales have been referred to as ‘ghost towns.’
While Egypt’s Minister of Tourism announced on Tuesday that the country has seen the most tourists in three years during the summer month of August, questions remain whether enough is being done to tackle the various issues tourists face once they arrive at Cairo International Airport.
For many in the tourism industry, the first step to rebuilding Egypt as one of the world’s top tourist destinations requires starting fresh. At least that is what was seen at the Corporate Travel Market exhibition held at Cairo’s International Convention Centre as the country’s first exhibition for corporate travel.
“Firstly, we need to forget about the past three years, let it go and start fresh, embracing what we have and taking back what we’ve lost,” said Mohamed Hanno, Executive Chairman and CEO of ASE Group in an interview with Egyptian Streets at the Corporate Travel Market exhibition in September.
“Secondly, we must go to the people, interact and network, not wait for them to come to us, because we need to show them what Egypt is really like. Besides, we still have a lot of advantages, many that other countries lack, our culture, history, historical sites, coastal cities and exotic monuments.”
Yet, from old and outdated amenities at famous historic sites to harassment by taxi drivers upon exiting airports, many in the industry agree that change is necessary to ensure that tourists return to Egypt.
Elhamy ElZayat, Chairman of the Egyptian Tourism Federation, explained at Egypt’s first corporate travel exhibition that these issues are the result of a disregard for legal permits and the lack of strict legal procedures and laws that would provide tourists with a more hospitable welcome.
Hanno echoed ElZayat’s statements, adding that there are many ways to tackle these problems. In particular, Hanno spoke of the lack of amenities at sites such as the Pyramids of Giza or the broken toilets at many of Cairo International Airport’s terminals.
“[Airports are] the first and last impression. There are so many things that can be done to fix this as it is in fact a serious problem. We should also take into consideration the opinions of the employees who actually work there. Moreover, we could use technology in evolving cleanliness and hygiene, and maybe build portable bathrooms,” stated Hanno to Egyptian Streets.
In an effort to tackle this, ElZayat told the Associated Press in September that the government plans to place janitorial services under private sector supervision.
Another issue that has often left tourists with a bad taste, often resulting in complaints to Egyptian embassies and consulates across the globe, is the scamming that many visitors face at the hands of vendors.
At the site of the last remaining ancient world wonder, the Great Pyramid of Giza, visitors often encounter hordes of men that attempt to prevent visitors from accessing the Pyramids and instead rent a horse or camel. These men, who can be aggressive, are often observed with disregard by security forces who stand just meters away at the entrance of the complex.
Similar aggressiveness is witnessed by visitors in Luxor, Aswan and other locales where vendors, attempting to make a living, harass visitors into purchasing souvenirs.
“This is a culture, unfortunately, which must change. This change comes through education, we ought to teach tourism at schools just like we teach physical education,” said Mr Hanno.
Despite these issues, some in the tourism industry believe change is around the corner. At the Pyramids, ElZayat said that vendors would be confined to designated areas and that security would be enhanced at the Pyramids.
Across Egypt’s popular tourist destinations and hotels, plans have been set to increase the number of security cameras and to introduce mandatory background checks for tourism industry workers.
Meanwhile, in hotels where tourists have often complained of poor service quality, Egypt will implement a system to monitor health standards and the quality of customer service.
Ahmed Kamel, the Regional Sales Director at Travco Holidays, told Egyptian Streets that complaints from the tourism industry were finally being heard by the government.
“I’ve recently spoken to the Minister about the current lack of services and surveillances, starting with the little things like bathrooms, especially for men, where there’s no privacy or hygiene. [There is also] the luggage at the airport that gets lost, the workers who consistently and bluntly beg for tips. Whereas, if you go to any other country there is no such thing, plus smoking in the airport when it’s supposed to be banned,” said Kamel, adding that he has seen a ‘huge’ difference and improvement since 2011.
With the tourism sector accounting for 12.5 percent of employment in Egypt, it remains to be seen whether these efforts will result in Egypt once again becoming a top destination for travellers.