Tourists may shun Egypt long after unrest ends

Egypt’s tourism business has withstood plenty of crises in the last 15 years, including the terrorist slaughter of 58 travelers near Luxor in 1997 and bombings in 2004, 2005 and 2006. But the country’s new instability poses a different sort of challenge, travel experts said. Even if Cairo turns calm tomorrow, they expect Americans to stay away for six months to a year, maybe longer.

“I always say that the American memory is good for 30 days. This time, I’m not sure,” said A. Ady Gelber, owner and chief executive of Isramworld, a New York operator of tours to Egypt for more than 30 years. “I hate to be negative, but I believe that we might as well forget this year.”

That calculation is based partly on perception — the time it might take for televised images of the chaos to fade. The other part is logistics: Most group tours are arranged four to five months in advance, Gelber said, so bookings are bound to trail behind other events.

James Sano, president of San Francisco-based Geographic Expeditions, agreed. “Before these latest incidents, Egypt was one of these places where the challenge was accommodating the demand rather than creating the demand,” Sano said. Now, “assuming the geopolitical situation can stabilize, it can take as much as six months to a year for Americans to feel more comfortable about returning.... We’ve tracked these things over the years with any number of countries.”


Both added that if there’s a change in government — especially if the country moves toward a Muslim theocracy — all bets are off, and Americans are likely to stay away for longer. Meanwhile, Cairo is far from calm, and the global tourism industry has been rushing to sweep its customers away to safety.

The U.S. State Department said nine flights carrying U.S. citizens left Cairo on Monday. It warned those departing to prepare for a “substantial” wait at the airport.

High-end tour operator Abercrombie & Kent USA evacuated the last of its clients from Egypt to Amman, Jordan, on a chartered plane Monday, spokeswoman Pamela Lassers said. The Downers Grove, Ill., company, which used satellite phones to update travelers’ family and friends at home, has canceled its tours and cruises to Egypt through Feb. 28. It has 400 Egyptian employees, sends “thousands of travelers” to Egypt yearly and had “a lot” there when the unrest began, Lassers said, although she declined to give an exact number of evacuees.

Like many tour operators, Abercrombie & Kent is offering various options to clients whose trips it canceled, and some are heading to places such as Europe, Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu in Peru, Lassers said. But “the majority want to just postpone their trips and take [them] later in the year. They want see how the situation resolves itself and then reschedule. Egypt is such a unique place that it’s difficult to substitute any other destination.”

Because its pyramids and mummies are extraordinary and because it has long served as a winter getaway for Europeans seeking warm beaches, Egypt appeals to travelers’ imaginations — and its economy depends heavily on that.

“Egypt has been in the ascendancy for the past five years,” said Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of Cruise Critic, a consumer information website based in Pennington, N.J. “The cruise lines have ramped up their offerings there. It’s a marquee port. In one word: It’s the pyramids. It’s the one place on the itinerary that people buy the whole cruise for.”

The effect of the Egypt unrest? “It depends on if it goes on much longer,” Brown said. So far, she noted, many cruise lines are canceling Egypt calls through February. Still scheduled are many calls at Egyptian ports this summer, on lines including Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, Regent Seven Seas, MSC, Costa and Princess.

Egyptian tourism officials, who reported about 320,000 American visitors a year in 2008 and in 2009, have said the 2010 total was about 350,000, a record. The United Nations World Tourism Organization estimated that 11.9 million international tourists went to Egypt in 2009, bringing with them $10.7 billion in revenue.

After the Luxor massacre in 1997, Gelber recalled, Egyptian authorities and airlines gradually rebuilt their business by beefing up security, boosting European advertising, cutting airfares as much as 30% and encouraging charter flights from Europe, where travelers are accustomed to using Egypt as an affordable warm-weather destination in winter.

Depending on the next few weeks, the unrest could attract some politically motivated travelers. Two years ago, after pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in Iran, “we had more travelers going to Iran than we’ve ever had,” Sano said. “We probably had several hundred.” This despite the stock market decline that happened about the same time.

The Egyptian unrest could work that way, Sano acknowledged, but causes and effects are nearly impossible to sort out. As he noted, the rise in his company’s Iran business might reflect Americans’ political sympathies. But “as we know, democracies can be messy,” he added.