From the Great Pyramids of Giza, through ancient temples at Luxor to the beach resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh and other towns along the Red Sea, Egypt has long been a popular tourist destination. The number of annual international visitors to Egypt hit an all time high of over 14 million in 2010, the year before the ousting of President Mubarak. The revolution and continuing unrest affected the tourist trade dramatically, with arrivals down to around nine million in 2012, and—after a shaky recovery in the early months of 2013—falling again after the ‘second revolution’. Visitors to Red Sea resorts accounted for a substantial portion of the arrivals. This region was the least affected by the unrest in Cairo and other cities, though reports of tourist kidnapping sand attacks on security guards did affect visitor numbers. But the ancient sites to the north remained off tourist itineraries, as foreign governments issued security warnings about visiting Egypt. Revenues from tourism decreased by 30 percent in 2011, dropping by nearly €440 million in July and August 2013 alone, after the military’s removal of President Morsi. Calculated annually, this decline would amount to a fall of 1.5 percent of Egyptian GDP.
“Tourism may get sick, but it will never die,” a temple guard in Luxor told me, holding on to some hope for the future. Ever since the 2011 revolution, the number of people visiting Egypt has been on the decline—a serious situation in a country where almost a third of the population depends on tourism as a source of income. Hopes rose a little in the early months of the Morsi government, but were dashed again in the unrest surrounding his removal from power. Many countries and tour operators issued warnings to people to stay away from Egypt, and the reports of ongoing violent clashes in the cities, and of attacks and kidnappings on the Sinai Peninsula, must have made Egypt a very unattractive prospect to most visitors.
For those who did arrive, a night-time curfew, deserted tourist sites, and the sight of closed shops and markets could not have been very attractive. The government became careless of cleaning and security at tourist sites, which detracted further from their allure. When I visited Luxor, there were barely 20 people at a temple I was told used to attract hundreds of sightseers daily; a tour guide in Hurghada told me that groups that had once numbered 200 to 400 people, had shrunk to just 30, and there were also only around 30 people watching the Giza pyramid sound-and-light show when I was there—an attraction that used to draw up to 1,200 viewers at a time.
The impact on people on the ground— the guides, guards, hotel workers, taxi drivers—has been severe, as it has on the supplementary tourist economy, on the souvenir sellers and camel owners offering rides. When I visited the Giza pyramids, I saw groups of desperate vendors and camel owners harassing the few tourists for trade, sometimes quite aggressively—something that surely did not make for an agreeable experience. And all over the country, workers in the tourist trade have been laid off, or put on unpaid stand-by, as restaurants and hotels lie empty. Tourism has become one of the sacrifices we have had to make in Egypt in order to change.