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Egypt uprising brings tourism to a standstill

The tourist camels are idle. The trinket shops are empty. The gates of the pyramid complex are locked up tight.

The 12-day-old uprising against President Hosni Mubarak has delivered a body blow to Egypt’s lucrative tourist trade. Visitors are the country’s principal source of foreign exchange, and tourism accounts for 7% of Egypt’s gross domestic product.

In normal times, which these most decidedly are not, winter is the height of the tourist season. With a respite from soaring summer temperatures, the cooler months are the most popular for taking languid cruises on the Nile, visiting desert oases, touring the majestic temples of Luxor or snorkeling and scuba-diving among the Red Sea coral reefs.

Yet in a country where one in nine people make a living from visitors, even some of those with the most to lose from the upheaval cannot quite bring themselves to denounce the rebellion.

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In the fragrant confines of the California Perfumes Palace, within view of the Giza pyramids, Ahmed Ali uncorked his scented wares — “Try the Cleopatra oil!” — and talked of the need for change.

“It’s bad for us,” he said of the tumult. “But it’s a happy time for the people. In the end, Egypt will be a stronger country, a better country.”

Egypt’s vice president, Omar Suleiman, told state television last week that the ongoing unrest had cost Egypt $1 billion in tourism revenue. Some analysts thought that estimate was a conservative one.

The State Department advised U.S. citizens to avoid travel to Egypt and to leave as soon as they could do so safely. Over the last six days, about 2,300 Americans have crowded aboard evacuation flights organized by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Commercial flights, which were disrupted at the height of the turmoil, are flying in nearly empty and flying out full.

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In some parts of the country, the events unfolding violently in the capital seem a world away, and tourist operators would like their clientele to think of them that way.

At one hotel in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh, guests noticed that a few days into the protests, a big flat-screen television disappeared from a coffee nook just off the opulent lobby. Waiters explained it was broken.

The tourist economy has bounced back from hard times before. In 1997, Islamist gunmen massacred dozens of foreign tourists in Luxor, causing an initially dramatic drop-off in visitor traffic, but the industry eventually recovered. In April 2005, a suicide bomber struck near a souk in Cairo popular with visitors from abroad, killing three foreign tourists.

Egypt has a powerful hold on the popular imagination, and one of the most striking scenes from the protests played on a classic stereotype. In televised images seen around the world, Mubarak partisans used a pair of tourist camels to plunge into the throngs of anti-government demonstrators in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square.

In Giza, a driver named Mohammed, who ferries tourists past the pyramids in his horse-drawn cart, said times were hard and might stay so for a while. But he took a long view of the unrest.

“Many things have happened,” he said, nodding in the direction of the massive ancient monuments. “And they are still here.”

laura.king@latimes.com


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