New State Department travel alert is bad news for Egypt

February 6, 2013

Last month, thugs twice attacked the Semiramis Intercontinental Hotel in Cairo. (REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)

Wednesday brought another troubling development for the Egyptian economy, which relies heavily on tourism and has suffered mightily since protests broke out in January 2011: The U.S. State Department has issued a scary-sounding travel alert that it says applies through May. The alert cites ongoing violence, political unrest that could trigger yet more clashes and the proximity of demonstrations to the U.S. embassy compound in Cairo, which protesters attacked head-on in September. Though such travel alerts are common, it's a reminder that the State Department is not exactly encouraging Americans to visit Egypt in droves, not that they have been since 2011 anyway.

The relevant information from the travel alert is below. I visited Egypt in August 2011 and found the hotels and museums all but empty. August is always slow in Egypt – it's hot, and that year it was the holy month of Ramadan – but everyone I spoke to emphasized that it had been a painful year for the all-important tourism industry. Since then, things have only worsened, with hotel occupancy rates hitting all-time lows. In late January, a band of thugs attacked the popular Semiramis Intercontinental hotel two nights in a row.

It might seem frivolous to worry about fancy, foreign-owned hotels while Egypt is in crisis, but if the country is to climb out of that crisis, its economy must recover, and that's going to be a lot more difficult if the tourists don't come back.

February 6, 2013

The U.S. Department of State alerts U.S. citizens traveling to or living in Egypt to the continuing possibility of political and social unrest, incidents of which have led to recent violence. U.S. citizens are urged to remain alert to local security developments and to be vigilant regarding their personal security. This Travel Alert expires on May 4, 2013.

Political unrest, which intensified prior to the constitutional referendum in December 2012 and the anniversary in 2013 of Egypt's 25th January Revolution, is likely to continue in the near future. Additionally, violent protests followed the January 2013 sentencing of persons involved in deaths and injuries at a February 2012 soccer match in Port Said. These demonstrations have, on occasion, degenerated into violent clashes between police and protesters, resulting in deaths, injuries, and extensive property damage. Participants have thrown rocks and Molotov cocktails and security forces have used tear gas and other crowd control measures against demonstrators. There are numerous reports of the use of firearms as well. In at least three cities, curfews have been imposed. While violent protests have occurred in major metropolitan areas, including downtown Cairo, Alexandria, and Port Said, the security situation in most tourist centers, including Luxor, Aswan, and Red Sea resorts such as Sharm el Sheikh, continues to be calm.

There have been no direct attacks on U.S. citizens; however, in isolated instances, Westerners and U.S. citizens have been caught in the middle of clashes and demonstrations. U.S. citizens are urged to remain alert to local security developments and to be vigilant regarding their personal security by knowing the locations of police and fire stations, hospitals, and the U.S. Embassy. The U.S. Department of State strongly urges U.S. citizens to avoid all demonstrations in Egypt, as even peaceful ones can quickly become violent, and a foreigner could become a target of harassment or worse. Because of the proximity of the U.S. Embassy to Tahrir Square in Cairo, the U.S. Embassy has sometimes been closed to the public on short notice due to violent protests. The Embassy will notify U.S. citizens as quickly as possible of any closing and the types of emergency consular services that will be available. Should security forces block off the area around the U.S. Embassy during demonstrations, U.S. citizens should contact the American Citizens Services section before attempting to come to the U.S. Embassy during that time. U.S. citizens are urged to remain alert to local security developments and to carry identification and, if moving about alone, a cell phone or other means of communication that works in Egypt.

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Max Fisher | February 6, 2013