"My family wishes I wasn't here," said Karen Webb, a theology student from St. Paul, Minn., as she walked out of the Egyptian Museum one morning this week. "Their impression," she said, is that Americans in Egypt "are practically picked off the streets and assaulted."
Webb's parents are not alone in their sense that danger awaits those who travel in the Middle East or those who are on their way here via Greece and Italy. Three spectacular hijackings in six months -- each one making innocent American tourists the prey of terrorists -- have spread tension through even the calmest tourist havens, such as Cairo, and cut bookings by the thousands.
Egypt, with its ancient monuments, its luxury hotels catering to large tours, and its desperate need for foreign exchange, is particularly hard hit. Hotel representatives and tourist agents contacted interviewed in Cairo report tour cancellations and a falloff in bookings ranging up to 45 percent. The cancellations, the agents report, are primarily by Americans, who make up the largest national group of visitors to Egypt, and who, with Israelis and other Jews, are usually the primary targets for Middle East terrorists.
Tourism is one of Egypt's four top sources of foreign exchange. But the succession of terrorist traumas has shaken the average tourist's confidence in the stability of the region, according to tourist agents, and at least temporarily lessened the exotic appeal of this land of ancient pyramids and a thousand minarets.
Although Egypt is considered by many the most friendly and one of the safest Middle East countries, many of the recent hijackings have been associated with Egypt.
The series began with the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 en route from Athens to Rome -- after originating in Cairo -- on June 14. Then came the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro off the Egyptian port of Alexandria on Oct. 7. Finally, in a grisly sort of culmination, came the seizure and storming of Egyptair Flight 648, which resulted in the deaths of 60 persons.
"The TWA hijacking hurt a little, but it was far away, and the Achille Lauro was still a little far, but with this latest hijacking , we're smack in the middle of it," said J. Richard Lyon, director of sales and marketing for the Cairo Marriott Hotel.
The Marriott, like the other foreign hotel chains operating in Egypt, is significantly underbooked as it heads into one of the peak seasons of the year.
"What we wanted and what we needed was a nice quiet six months after the Achille Lauro hijacking ," said Lyon, "but this last hijacking really put the icing on the cake."
Janet Petronis, consul of the U.S. Embassy here, said the embassy received many calls from people in the United States planning trips to Egypt after the Achille Lauro affair, in which New York resident Leon Klinghoffer was killed and thrown overboard in his wheelchair. The callers wanted to know if it was safe to travel to Egypt.
The embassy has not received any calls since the recent hijacking, according to Petronis. "People have perhaps come to their own conclusions," she said. "People aren't asking -- they're just not coming."
Amr Chawky, sales manager of the Ramses Hilton here, reported that bookings during Christmas and New Year's are off 15 percent.
Egyptian and U.S. officials, asked why they thought Americans are the primary targets of terrorism, spoke of the power of America and its close, highly visible involvement in the Middle East.
Jovita Mask, a 37-year-old woman from Raleigh, N.C., currently touring Egypt, said she thought that Americans were singled out because of their high profile. "If you kill a Portuguese, it won't even make the 6:30 news," she said.
A western diplomat, who is an economic specialist, pointed out that several of Egypt's sources of foreign currency are dwindling at once. As the Iranian-Iraqi war has lessened tanker traffic through the Suez Canal, and Arab countries cut back on Egyptian labor, Egypt has pinned many of its hopes on tourism as "a fertile area for increasing foreign exchange," he said.
Tourist agents and hotel representatives are trying to look at the bright side. They are optimistic that people will forget the latest string of disasters and that the spring and summer tourist seasons once again will be lively.
"It's amazing how short people's memories are," said Marriott's Lyon.