The Ministry of Tourism’s attempt to attract foreigners to visit Egypt came under fire amid a controversy surrounding the video used to encourage tourism displayed at the International Tourismus-Börse (ITB) Berlin, one of the world’s largest tourism conventions, held between 8 and 12 March.
Conference attendees and social media users criticised the video for showcasing low-income Egyptians unable to provide for their families as Egypt’s tourism economy continues to deteriorate.
Privately-owned newspaper Al-Shorouk reported that the Minister of Tourism Hisham Zaazou, who joined the Egyptian delegation, defended Egypt’s choice to show the video, saying that the purpose of the video was not to beg for tourists but rather show that there is more to the tourism industry than just companies by highlighting the Egyptian people. Zaazou also blamed poor translation for the misunderstanding, adding that this is the same video posted on the ministry’s social media accounts.
“I have not seen the video but I have heard about its content and its reliance on gaining the sympathy of attendees is not a good marketing strategy,” said Chairman of the Egyptian Tourism Federation (ETF) Elhamy El-Zayat, who added that changing the image of Egypt is one of the main pillars of attracting tourism.
The depiction of folkloric dancers also drew heavy criticism from those who argued that their use was “offensive” due to a heavy reliance on appealing to the senses rather than proper marketing. The ministry argued that such “artistic shows” attributed to the high turnout at Egypt’s booth.
“Relying on dancers to market tourism is an outdated technique that no one uses any longer,” the ETF’s chairman said.
The use of the dancers on the first day of the conference was also a miscalculation on the organisers part, El-Zayat said. “The first day is attended by businessmen and serious travel agents who are looking to make deals.”
El-Zayat explained that those agents know the type of entertainment that Egypt has to offer.
He said that organisers should know “their audience”, adding that having those dancers might have been more acceptable for the third or fourth day where normal citizens would have found these shows entertaining.
El-Zayat did not place all the blame on the ministry but rather added the Tourism Activation Authority to the mix. The ETF’s chairman also criticised the personal attacks on the minister.
Yet, despite the ministry’s insistence that they witnessed a high turnout of visitors to Egypt’s booth at the convention, the country was not added to the “Top 50 Countries to Visit” list.
Amid confusion and criticism over Egypt’s current tourism campaign, social media users continue to question: how is it that a country overlooking both the Red and Mediterranean seas and the River Nile, and which has one third of the world’s monuments as well as affordable prices, is still unable to attract tourists?
Competitiveness report ranking
The World Economic Forum’s 2015 Tourism Competitiveness Report was an indicator for how the country’s tourism sector is suffering. Not only did the country’s ranking fail to include it among the top 30 countries, but, with a 3.49 score, the country ranked 10th among Middle East countries and came in 83rd place globally in the ranking for the top tourism-ready economies.
Egypt’s scores in business environment, health and hygiene, human resources and the labour market as well as ICT readiness all ranked as average or slightly above average at most. The country’s safety and security ranking, however, was below average at 3.4, only surpassing by Yemen, which had a 2.86 score.
“Egypt’s outstanding cultural resources (41st) and long history are perhaps under-leveraged, as reflected in a surprisingly low rank (60th) for oral and intangible heritage,” the report said.
“Current instability is reducing Egypt’s appeal to international tourists, and limiting receipts and, hence, funds available for investment,” the report added. “It also contributes greatly to the low safety and security performance (136th) and might also have an impact on the country’s relatively limited international openness (115th) performance.”
The report highlighted the country’s infrastructure, namely the quality of roads and the efficiency, or lack thereof, of the transportation network, commenting that it needs a “significant upgrade”.
Putting Egypt in comparison with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a country that lacks natural resources, clearly showcases how behind Egypt is. In 2013, the UAE was visited by 10m tourists. In 2015, Gulf country’s ranked first among Middle Eastern countries and came in 25th place globally.
“While the UAE does not have rich natural resources (95th), it has built a unique environment to attract both business and leisure travellers,” the report read. “From Expo 2020 Dubai to the construction of the Louvre and Guggenheim, the UAE is investing in and giving significant importance to the development of the T&T [travel and tourism] industry.”
To rescue tourism’s dire state, Egypt’s central idea has been to start promotional campaigns by relying on videos, pictures, and social media to spread the world.
In April 2014, a campaign named “Wahshtona” (We have missed you) was launched, targeting tourists from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Kuwait.
Another campaign, “Masr Orayeba” (Egypt is close), included a five-minute song encouraging Arab tourists to visit Egypt, and featured many Egyptian actors and actresses. The campaign was launched earlier this year.
One of the more recent campaigns to have caught attention was the “This is Egypt” campaign. The campaign encouraged users to use the hashtag #ThisisEgypt to promote positive images of Egypt on social media accounts like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
“Pictures spread all over Instagram [a photo-sharing social media application] of Egyptian celebrities and young successful Egyptians trying to attract tourists are not necessarily functional,” Rana Radwan, a marketing executive at a multinational company, said.
“I don’t understand why we would use Egyptian celebrities to attract tourists,” Radwan said. “Nobody knows who they are abroad.”
The ministry’s strategy may have succeeded at raising awareness among locals but have failed to target the desired foreign tourist, Radwan noted.
“Having campaigns of foreign celebrities while they are in Egypt, whether they are filming a movie or just on vacation, would have been more beneficial,” Radwan added.
Late last year, the ministry announced that it will launch another international promotional tourism campaign at a conference in London during the first week of November.
The ministry signed a three-year contract with JWT to implement a promotional campaign at an annual cost of $22.6m and a total cost of $68m. The contract states that JWT will only get between 3%-4% of the campaign’s cost per year as commission.
“We are looking forward to making next year a beginning for improvement, whether in revenues or numbers,” said Zaazou, noting that Egypt will target tourism revenues worth $10bn in 2016.
To any tourist, the desire to visit attractive tourist spots in Egypt does not exceed the desire to stay safe.
However, as Chairman of the Chamber of Tourism Companies and Agencies in Upper Egypt Tharwat El-Agamy put it: “as long as there are explosions, we cannot expect tourism to recover.”
“The Ministry of Tourism is doing all that it can,” El-Agamy said. “All that travel agencies talk about is the lack of security.”
El-Agamy argued that the drop in tourist arrivals is a normal outcome, explaining that Turkey suffered the same fate after the latest terrorist attacks on its soil.
“European tourists are in a constant state of fear about coming to Egypt,” El-Agamy added, pointing out that: “Greece and Spain are now more preferable vacation spots.”
Following the 25 January Revolution, occupancy rates in Cairo hotels dropped by 30% while spots like Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada were abandoned by tourists, plummeting by 39%.
According to the World Economic Forum, tourism arrival rates dropped from 14.3m to 9.5m between 2010 and 2011. Another hit shocked the sector after former president Mohamed Morsi was toppled and arrival rates dropped from 11.5m in 2012 to 9.5m in 2013.
The revolution is not the only element to blame. Security concerns have long been a concern for tourists over the years. A 2005 attack in Sharm El-Sheikh that killed 8 and the three bombings in 2006 in Dahab that killed 23 raised the threat of potentially more fatal attacks. Following these attacks, the country lost 8% of foreign tourism arrivals in 2006.
With all the political turbulence following the 2011 uprising, the sector failed to gain back its preceding revenue levels. It went from gaining $12.5bn in 2010 to $8.8m in 2011. Revenues picked up in 2012 to reach $11bn but plummeted in 2013 to a mere $5.9bn. An increase was noted in 2014 with the sector recording $7.3bn in revenue but that improvement was short-lived after revenue deteriorated once again in 2015, bringing in just $6.1bn.
Last year in particular was a challenging year for both security and tourism. In September 2015, Egyptian security forces mistakenly killed 12 Egyptians and Mexicans who were part of a tour group travelling in the Western Desert, after believing they were terrorists. Eight of them were Mexican tourists.
The Ministry of Tourism and government criticised the tour group for entering the restricted area near the Bahariya Oasis, claiming that it was under restricted access due to the alleged presence of militants operating in the area.
At the end of October, a Russian plane departed from Sharm El-Sheikh headed towards St. Petersburg, but crashed in North Sinai killed all 224 passengers onboard. “Sinai Province”, an “Islamic State” (IS) affiliated group operating in Sinai, claimed responsibility for the attack, stating they had used a bomb disguised by a soda can to bring down the plane.
Great Britain, Russia and several other countries suspended their flights to Egypt in the wake of the crash after several countries, including the United States, publically claimed the crash was the result of a terrorist attack. Egypt has persistently denied that it was a terrorist attack, stating instead that no conclusion can be made until official investigations are complete.
The plane crash was particularly dreadful for Egypt’s tourism economy, as Russian tourists make up the largest proportion of tourists travelling to Egypt, particularly to resort cities like Sharm El-Sheikh.
The direct loss suffered by the tourism sector due to the crash is estimated to be EGP 2.2bn per month, according to the tourism minister, who added that additional indirect losses could amount to between EGP 700m and EGP 1bn per month.
Sharm El-Sheikh, once the crowned jewel of Egypt’s tourism sector and an oasis away from most of the political instability affecting the country, has reportedly become a ghost town in the aftermath of the plane crash.
Foreign tourism companies speak up
During the ITB forum, foreign companies that met with Zazzou expressed their desire to being back their tours but added that security and stability are essential if that is to happen.
El-Zayat said that, realistically, tourism’s recovery will take a long time. He added that recent agreements signed between the Control Risks security company and the Ministry of Tourism is not enough for tourism’s recovery.
The six-month agreement will seek to review security practices at six Egyptian airports and provide reports on how improvements could be implemented and train the staff on how to detect potential threats.
What is more important, however, is what is going to happen after those six months pass, El-Zayat said.
“The ability to sustain high security levels is what Egypt needed to showcase,” El-Zayat said, referring to the convention.
Visiting tourists are looking for secure places to go and unless that is accomplished then we cannot expect the sector to recover, the ETF’s chairman noted.
The ETF’s chairman added that the tourism ministry should not bear the burden of the lack of security in the region.
“The Middle East is challenged by the lack of security at the moment,” El-Zayat said. “Tourists opted to go to Spain, Singapore, and Thailand instead of the Middle East.”
Early Tuesday, two suicide attacks took place at the main airport in Brussels and another bomb occurred on the city’s metro line, killing dozens and injuring over 100 as of Tuesday evening.
“Today Brussels was attacked and we can only expect what will happen to its tourism … fear is a human sentiment and you would not want to go somewhere where you feel your life is in danger,” El-Zayat said.