Egypt’s tourism sector has over the past years been battered by revolutionary turmoil, terrorism and uncertainty, leaving the once-blossoming industry largely shattered. Although tourism figures have recently began to recover after the resumption of flights to Sharm El-Sheikh by key countries, the large-scale tourism that once was booming in Red Sea resorts and Upper Egypt is still nowhere near its pre-2011 level.
In light of this, niche tourism may seem like a minor concern compared to the large-scale issues the industry is facing. However, with the demise of the traditional tourism that is largely focused on beach tourism around the Red Sea and to a lesser extent, archeological tourism in Cairo, Luxor and Aswan, niche tourism and different variations of tourism have begun to make up a much larger percentage of overall tourism, due to the decline in the country and are therefore worth having an eye on in terms of personal utilization and investment purposes.
Tourism in Egypt – A Quick Overview
Having mentioned some of the large-scale issues the tourism industry in the country faces such as the general decline due to – partially perceived – security issues. This has led to a large decline in the aftermath of 2011 and several ups and downs, topped by another large shock as a bomb exploded on board a Russian passenger jet. While Russian and European visitors who value the Red Sea resorts or the ancient sites all over Egypt formerly made up the overwhelming majority of tourists, things have shifted somewhat recently: The CAPMAS figures from September show that 34.6% of tourists came from Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia, which makes up the bulk of Arab tourists to Egypt.
Egypt’s attractiveness for tourists can be summed up in the diversity of its offerings; from ancient sites, to ecotourism and desert tours to larger and smaller beach resorts at the Red Sea. However, which niche of tourism accounts for how many tourists is not easily identifiable due to a lack of statistics.
The Egyptian government, as part of its 2015 investment conference ‘Egypt The Future,’ set the target of boosting tourism figures back to its pre-revolutionary level of around 15 mn per year by 2017/18, doubling it again by 2020 to 30 million. Later, the goal was adjusted to reach 20 mn by 2020. This no doubt is also highly ambitious and the government has therefore laid down several ideas to boost figures, including the development of already existing and strong tourism sectors such as cultural and beach tourism, but also involving the broadening of the industry by developing sectors such as business travel and other special areas.
Tourism Sectors and Destinations
The traditional main sectors of Egypt’s tourism industry are cultural tourism, mainly in the areas of Giza and around Luxor and Aswan, and beach tourism at the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. While this makes up for the bulk of tourism, there are several niches that are worth studying here. The focus here is on the specific advantages of Egypt and what it can provide compared to other holiday destinations.
When we take the classic mainstream beach tourism out of the equation there still remain quite a few niches: Firstly there is of course the kind of sightseeing tourism that probably makes up for the bulk of tourism in Egypt alongside beach vacations. This includes many regions with some being more popular in that regard than others.
The Western Desert
While many tourist sites are highly developed, like the Great Pyramids or Luxor and Aswan, there are also other locations in Egypt that promise potential, such as parts of the Western Desert, especially Siwa. With the old town of Shali at its center and the Temple of Amun, Siwa offers sites of great history as well as opportunities for eco- and agricultural tourism, with agriculture being a traditional Siwan business. The wide desert additionally grants room to all desert-related activities and the oasis itself can offer a feeling very close to your average beach vacation with its hot weather and large salt lakes.
This however also brings us to one of the downsides: Average temperatures in Siwa exceed 30 degrees on average from May to September, with an unrelenting sun shining straight from above. Another major problem – or perhaps blessing depending on the point of view – is a lack of infrastructure. While there is an airport at Marsa Matruh, Siwa is in fact only accessible by road from Alexandria or Cairo with the ride from Cairo taking up to 12 hours including nearly half a dozen checkpoints. For tourists from abroad who are only staying for a very limited time and do not seek to stay at the oasis for their whole vacation, this is definitely a severe disadvantage. Further, the security situation with Siwa being almost on the Libyan border is a major problem and has over the past scared away many tourists from the once-blossoming Siwan tourist industry.
Many of the up- and downsides of this also apply to Bahariya and neighbouring oases. While the ride to these places is not as long and the security situation is largely better, these mostly do not offer the same amount of historical sites or the same beauty as Siwa. Desert trips from here though have the potential for a blossoming industry, even though the area was shaken by events such as an attack in July 2014 at the Farafra Oasis Road that killed 22 soldiers or an incident in September 2015 that saw the death of 12 people, most of them Mexican tourists.
With improvements to the security situation though and expansions to the local infrastructure, the Western Desert still bears great potential to attract tourists from abroad in large numbers.
The Sinai Resorts
Also while having a look at the Sinai tourism resorts we are largely taking beach vacations out of the equation – even though it can still be considered a perk of each of the towns – and focus on the various other kinds of tourism.
These also comprise sightseeing including cultural and religious highlights such as Mount Sinai and Saint Catherine’s Monastery as well as natural sites like the Dahab Blue Hole – which is also a major diving hotspot – and the large geographically interesting areas around Dahab and Nuweiba.
These areas in Sinai offer opportunities for hiking and other trips, a sector which is also a major venue for growth due to the geographically advantageous position of Sinai resorts such as Dahab from where ancient sites in Jordan and Israel can be reached.
Samy Solaiman, Head of the Taba and Nuweiba Investors Association, says that international tourism to Sinai was in the past partially served by the bridge between Taba and Eilat, especially religious tourism to Saint Katherine and the Moses trail. He added that certain kinds of tourism have started kicking off recently in Sinai with parties, music festivals, yoga and detox tourism, also calling to draw more attention to the diverse nature of the tourism industry.
While infrastructure is much better for the resorts on the Sinai Peninsula – which are being served by Sharm El-Sheikh International Airport and the proximity to Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia – and the security situation is better than in the vast Western Desert with the long border to Libya, there nonetheless are issues. As aforementioned the downing of a Russian airliner by a bomb has led to the temporary suspension of flights from Russia while just recently German Lufthansa resumed flights to Sharm El-Sheikh after the incident. While in general the situation is not especially dangerous in Southern Sinai, the perceived problems due to recent incidents and the proximity of the area to the tumultuous Northern Sinai are much larger and so far have taken a dramatic toll on the industry.
Potential ways to improve tourism revenues in the area include attracting a more solid customer basis. The diving spots on the Red Sea offer great potential here due to their uniqueness while landscape and historical sites might also be able to attract more people when marketed properly. Solaiman though adds that “it’s not necessarily a question of promotion,” stating that first efforts should be made to encourage tourism internally, for example cleaning campaigns and improvements to the infrastructure.
In line with that, he also calls for a ban of transport trucks during certain hours of the day to ease traffic and for evening visitation hours at certain archeological sites to allow tourists to get more out of their trips.
Taking into account the broad variety and former size of the tourist sector in Southern Sinai, tourism in this area does not seem limited by a lack of variation or attractiveness but rather by security and infrastructure issues, even though the security situation might be perceived to be more dramatic than it actually is.
Egypt commands everything needed for a thriving tourism industry and several niches and special sectors of tourism are already available, including the aforementioned niches – yielding a large potential for further development. Problematic though is the security situation that puts limits on just about every kind of tourism. The real security situation however is probably not even half as problematic as the perceived issues and the ensuing bad image cannot be countered only by improvements to the real security issues but also requires extensive efforts to improve the perception of the situation in the country.
Additionally there are still problems with an underdeveloped infrastructure and general accessibility for tourism. Cleanliness and a generally healthy environment for a blossoming tourism industry are further issues that keep tourism to Egypt down. As Solaiman says, promotion might not necessarily be the problem but rather a lack of the right environment.
With improvements to these issues though Egypt might actually have a chance to find back to the tourist figures from the pre-2011 era – something which might help with quite a few issues such as unemployment and a lack of foreign currency reserves.