Egypt’s Beach Tourism: an insider’s perspective
July 22, 2012 Leave a comment
Our Egyptian correspondant Susan Richards-Benson examines the shift in the tourism industry as the Arab Spring changes the paradigm in an Egypt desperate to recover its former economical status
The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 greatly impacted many economic sectors in the country, with the tourism industry arguably being the hardest hit. Beach towns that in previous years overflowed with tourists were sparsely populated with lonely vendors struggling to sell their wares to any passer-by. In Sharm el-Sheikh, a well-known hot-spot for foreign beach tourists, cafes sat empty and the streets lay dead. In Cairo, which saw the brunt of the violent clashes during the uprising, the great pyramids played host to only a handful of visitors in a week, a stark contrast to the throngs of people that used to visit daily.
When President Morsi was elected just over three weeks ago, naturally the Egyptians whose livelihood depends on a rejuvenation of the tourism sector were eager to hear how he intended to address the issue and help Egypt’s tourism thrive once more. Claims arose that his Islamist dominated leadership would negatively impact beach tourism, which modest estimates claim make up over 80% of Egypt’s overall revenue from tourism. This combined with fundamentalist Salafi calls to ban the sale of alcohol and outlaw bikinis did little to assuage these fears.
During his campaign for election as president, Mr. Morsi never set out a clear stance on how he intended to promote Egyptian tourism. His speeches became riddled with ambiguous references to preserving the significance of the industry, and hailing the importance of Egyptian antiquities and cultural heritage. On July 18, a popular Egyptian daily publication, the Egypt Independent featured an interview with travel agency manager Mariam al-Attar. She had this to say about President Morsi’s stance, “Nothing has been cleared up about the state’s future approach to assure that no radical changes [to the tourism sector] would be implemented.” With this in mind, what has been the real impact of all of this in the beach towns that generate the majority of the revenue?
“Hurghada has been witnessing slow growth in the tourism sector, but the majority of the profits went to the all-inclusive hotels. Guests are less likely to leave the compounds of their resort hotels for fear of unrest or instability in the streets. “
Hurghada is a popular tourist destination located on the Red Sea. It’s location provides supreme beaches, while the coral reefs running down the coastline are favourites with divers as more than a few of the top ten dive spots in the world are located in the Red Sea itself. In the summer season of 2011, Hurghada was struggling to survive the impact of the Revolution. Tourism companies were struggling and seeing only a fraction of the revenue they had seen in years past. Everyone was waiting for the economic revival. Since the beginning of 2012, Hurghada has been witnessing slow growth in the tourism sector, but the majority of the profits went to the all-inclusive hotels. Guests are less likely to leave the compounds of their resort hotels for fear of unrest or instability in the streets. This has had a resounding impact on the overall demographics of Hurghada’s hot-spots.
Famous amongst Caireans for its party lifestyle, Hurghada’s clubs and beaches often played host to scantily clad men and women. Alcohol flowed freely, and life often mirrored the party scene of some of the Mediterranean’s top party destinations. Ladies wearing a traditional veil or headscarf were barely ever seen in the main tourist haunts. In fact, many establishments that served alcohol barred entrance to women wearing a hijab to protect their moral integrity. Since the Egyptian Revolution however, and more so since the election of President Morsi, this has all changed.
Nowadays it is becoming commonplace to walk into a private pool club or beach and see women in their Burkinis and veils. Management are being forced more and more often to request women in their Islamic swim wear to get out of the private pools, and direct them towards the beach. Even more surprising, walking into many of the night clubs in and around Hurghada you will spot women in their veils. This is astounding as in traditional Islamic belief, such women are forbidden from being in an establishment that serves alcohol and promotes lewd behaviour. In places that previously barred entrance to veiled ladies, what has caused this sudden shift?
“The result is that many tourists simply choose to spend their holidays inside their all-inclusive resort hotels where they do not have to deal with the growing Islamist tendencies in Hurghada.”
The answer is simple; when the Revolution crippled foreign tourism and eliminated the previously unspoken about borders between certain governorates, Egyptians flocked to the beach resorts. Combine this with the election of an Islamist leadership, and it’s easy to understand how the conservative dress is spreading in the region. With Hurghada’s summer season in full swing you can witness the power struggle first hand between the women wearing a veil who demand a greater sense of freedom and respect, and the establishments struggling to cater to a once-again growing foreigner customer base. The result is that many tourists simply choose to spend their holidays inside their all-inclusive resort hotels where they do not have to deal with the growing Islamist tendencies in Hurghada.
Another popular beach resort Sharm el-Sheikh was perhaps even harder hit than Hurghada in the post-revolution period. Increasing incidents of kidnappings of foreign nationals in the Sinai region is doing little to promote Sharm’s tourist appeal. Barbara* was a former resident of Sharm who recently re-visited the area to see some old friends. When asked about her experiences and her overall impression, she sadly replied that “I won’t be going back to Sharm anytime soon.”
“Sharm is now over-flowing with men in the streets that two years ago would have never been allowed into the city. They presumably are coming from inside the Sinai itself or from Upper Egypt, I cannot tell for sure. The impact is, as a foreigner I experienced far higher levels of harassment and sexual obscenities in the streets than I had ever previously witnessed. I was even groped by a stranger on the street walking home one night. When I confronted him about it, he shrugged me away as though nothing had happened. I was with family and friends from the UK, and had to continuously repeat to them ‘this is not the real Egypt. This is not what people here are usually like,” Barbara explains.
Unsurprisingly, the security vacuum in the Sinai Peninsula has filtered into Sharm el-Sheikh resulting in a greater sense of lawlessness in the governorate when compared to other areas of Egypt. Sadly the impact that this is having on Sharm’s tourism is extremely negative, with many visitors claiming they will not be returning.
President Morsi has a big job in front of him. He has to be able to create a balance between the Islamist forces in the government, while realising the importance that beach tourism has to Egypt’s fragile economy. Alienating tourists in the region, or causing them to feel that their own personal safety is at risk, is an issue that needs to be addressed immediately. Until this balance is struck, those living in Egypt’s beach side resort towns will continue to wait with bated breath to see how their towns can once again become beacons for tourists from around the world.
*Name changed for privacy reasons.