Egypt is recovering slowly from the devastating effect on tourism created by the assassination last October of President Anwar Sadat. Planes are full, hotels are crowded, museums and monuments jammed with people. But talks with at least a score of travel industry representatives make it clear that it will be a year before tourism resumes its normal rate of growth in this country.
"We lost about $200 million in tourism dollars," said Bahi Eldin Nasr, Egypt's undersecretary for tourism. This is about one-third Egypt's annual take from tourism, which is the nation's third largest industry after oil and the Suez Canal.
"After Sadat's death, the foreign press pictured Egypt as an unsafe destination. It had a tremendous effect. October was almost dead. November was half-dead. We started to pick up in January. The decline was helped by several earthquakes in Aswan. These were just minor temblors, but it was played up big in Europe, and that cost us."
Egyptian officials tend to blame the press, but it is clear from conversations here that for weeks after the assassination there was panic and fear. The situation obviously has settled: to the foreign observer Egypt looks like a nation in a state of calm, very absorbed with solving its enormous economic and social problems. Although paintings and photos of Sadat still adorn streets, squares and offices, the square-jawed, pragmatic image of his successor, Hosni Mubarak, is very much in evidence in newspapers and by word of mouth.
"Sadat talked too much," said Labib Louca, general manager of a branch of MISR, Egypt's government-sponsored travel agency. "He used to be onstage all the time. Mubarak is brief and clear and serious. This is a man who knows time is valuable." Louca was expressing what appears to be a broad consensus. Eschewing public appearances and grandstanding, Mubarek seems determined to take on the unglamorous mechanics of poverty, housing and overpopulation.
Egypt's population of 43 million grows by 1 million every 10 months.
Egyptian newspapers reflect the focus on problem-solving. Last month, for example, they reported that Mubarak was personally investigating bread and onion shortages throughout the country. On another day, Mubarak announced that funds originally earmarked to celebrate the reacquisition of the Sinai from Israel scheduled for April 25 would be diverted to finance low-income housing.
Even a tourist's-eye view of Cairo immediately brings into focus the contrasts of poverty and plenty. Giant hotels are zooming up like sheets of Nile papyrus--Sheraton, Hilton, Marriott--foreign investment that during Sadat's regime reportedly enriched only Egypt's merchant elite. In the shadow of these five-star towers, most of Cairo's teeming masses--12 million and growing fast--live in housing dilapidated enough to appear to have survived a blitz.
Automobile traffic is bumper-to-bumper 14 hours a day: Parking is sheer anarchy. Along one stretch of road is a huge Egyptian cemetery filled with large mausoleums where the wealthy have entombed their dead. Squatting in these mausoleums are hundreds, perhaps thousands of homeless fellahin.
Not a pretty picture. But for all that, Cairo is not a depressing city: It generates a sense of tremendous energy and vitality. Still, for the tourist seeking relief from urban pressures, two days in Cairo--encompassing the incredible pyramids, the sphinx, the Egyptian museum--should be enough. (Be sure to see a major new attraction: the Cheops bark, a massive ceremonial boat of Lebanese cedar excavated at the base of the great pyramid nearly 30 years ago and now on view to the public after a generation of delays. Perfectly preserved, reconstructed from 1,200 pieces like a jigsaw puzzle, the Cheops boat is housed in a modern museum at the south base of the pyramid. Admission is steep--about $8--but worth it for this phenomenal discovery some 6,000 years old).
Egypt's true revelation derives from a visit to the Upper Nile, specifically Luxor, Aswan and points between. Nothing prepares a visitor for the impact of spectacle and scope conveyed by the 4,000-year-old temples of Karnak and Luxor. Or, for that matter, the exquisite preservation of the tomb paintings in the Valley of the Kings and Valley of the Queens. (Another gem, only recently made public--the burial place of a child of Rameses III, in the Valley of the Queens. Dating back more than 3,000 years, the tomb's wall paintings, viewable only when the sun's angle permits primitive mirror reflections through the tomb's entrance, are supreme examples of the genre unbelievably preserved in vivid hues of blue, yellow, red and orange.)
But the best surprise of both Luxor and Aswan (150 miles apart, reachable by plane, bus or modern train), is that they are two of the world's beauty spots designed by nature for relaxation and leisure. There is perfect climate from October through April (akin to, say, Palm Springs in winter).
There is the magnificent Nile for sailing on or just staring at against a backdrop of desert, mountain and cloudless sky; islands to explore, hotels with lush tropical gardens and swimming pools (old, but most elegant--the Winter Palace in Luxor); and for the pampered, luxury riverboats that steam between Luxor and Aswan for anywhere from four to 11 nights. So, you can visit monuments in the cool mornings and relax in the p.m. without feeling guilty.
Prices generally are cheaper than at most resorts: the five-star Winter Palace, for example, with breakfast, is roughly $30 per person per night.
The catch to all that--and there is a catch--is that neither Luxor nor Aswan are equipped to absorb the quickened pace of tourism inspired by the Sadat peace initiative (and temporarily deflated by his death). Both cities are notoriously overbooked in season, principally because of an inadequate and overburdened inventory of first-rate hotel rooms. (In Egypt anything below four-star is at your own risk).
Things get so bad, that travel agencies print warnings to customers. Excerpts from one: "Sometimes the shower won't function . . . Itinerary, arrival or departure time . . . can be changed without notice . . . It can happen that guests are required to spend the night in the lobby."
Notices like these are rather alarmist and make one wonder how such agencies (like the American one responsible for the above comments) manage to generate business to Egypt. Actually, the United States is Egypt's largest single customer, with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia. In 1981, 155,000 Americans toured Egypt, 11 percent of the total 1.4 million visitors.
The personal experience of this visitor (arranged through VIP Travel in Tel Aviv and Emeco Travel in Egypt) was almost totally smooth. But one hears enough horror stories to alert would-be tourists that a trip to Egypt can be an adventure in more ways than one.
A spirit of flexibility and patience is definitely prerequisite. Egypt's travel establishment is well aware of the problems and candid in discussing them. It appears to be state policy to upgrade tourism as an instrument of economic recovery.
"Everything and every detail needs to be improved," said Adel Taher, Egypt's minister of tourism and civil aviation, a Mubarak appointment and the first tourism chief to come from within tourism ranks. "We need better guides, better attitudes toward tourists. We need better roads, electricity, telephones, better airports, accommodations and transportation. It's not just a tourism issue, it cuts across the whole spectrum of Egyptian life.
The ministry has a five-year plan to decentralize tourism, designed to encourage longer stays and to divert traffic from the bottleneck attractions. It proposes to exploit the thousand miles of almost untouched Mediterranean and Red Sea beachfront, as well as remote desert oases and mineral springs for the health tourist.
The goal is to double hotel rooms in that span, to increase numbers of tourists to 2 million a year, and double tourism income from the present $600 million a year.
The ambitious plan, which includes special incentives for foreign investment, nonetheless has at least a partial ring of unreality. It is intricately linked to such unpredictable factors as the future of Egypt's economic policies, the still-untested Mubarak leadership, the traditional passivity and inertia of Egypt's institutions, and the instability of Mideast politics. (The future of relations with Israel after April 25 is also a factor. Israeli tourism to Egypt is substantial--6 percent of non-Arab Western tourists in January).
Forgetting hyped goals for the moment, and assuming ongoing stability--a big assumption--there is no doubt that the tourism industry here is in an up-curve, only temporarily diverted by the Sadat tragedy. There is a boom psychology reflected by the pace of construction, the businesslike attitude of travel officials and a trend to greater professionalism. With determination and luck, the sky can be the limit for Egypt, already one of the world's most exciting "destinations."