Egypt prepares for return of Russian tourists
Egypt is hoping the resumption of direct flights between Russia and Egypt will see an influx of tourists in 2018 that will restore its beleaguered tourism sector.
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree on January 4 for the resumption of flights between Moscow and Cairo. Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov said direct commercial flights could resume in mid-February.
“The local tourism sector suffered greatly because of the flight suspension,” said Mostafa Khalil, deputy head of the Egyptian Federation of Chambers of Tourism. “Tourist establishments have high hopes that the resumption of flights from Russia will help the sector recover.”
Russia suspended flights to Egypt in November 2015 after one of its passenger planes was bombed over Sinai after take-off from Sharm el- Sheikh, resulting in the death of all 224 passengers and crew members on board.
The Russian flight suspension caused a huge loss to Egypt’s tourism sector. Before 2015, approximately 3 million Russian tourists visited the country every year. The Russian decision encouraged Western governments, including the United Kingdom, Italy and Germany, to take similar moves, which exasperated the situation.
Egyptian tourism revenues amounted to $6.1 billion in 2015 but dropped to $3.4 billion in 2016. Tourism revenues rose to $7.2 billion last year with hopes that, with the resumption of flights from Russia, revenues will return to pre-2011 figures. Egypt’s tourism revenues for 2010 — one year before the revolution that ousted longstanding President Hosni Mubarak, totalled $12.5 billion.
In 2010, Egypt’s tourism sector employed about 12% of the overall workforce. An estimated 14.7 million tourists, mostly from Europe, visited the country that year. The latest figures indicate that fewer than 6 million tourists visited Egypt during the first nine months of 2017 and 5.4 million visited the country throughout 2016.
The decrease in tourism revenues exposed major vulnerabilities in the Egyptian economy, particularly the cost of maintaining Egypt’s museums and antiquities.
Putin allowed the resumption of flights to Egypt three weeks after Egyptian Civil Aviation Minister Sherif Fathi signed a protocol for cooperation on airport security with the Russians.
The protocol was signed after Egyptian authorities had spent months improving security at national airports. The Egyptian government said it revolutionised security systems inside airports to ensure that tourists visiting the country would be safe.
“Modern equipment was introduced for the first time at the airports to ensure that every inch is closely monitored,” Khalil said.
With flights between Moscow and Cairo expected to resume in mid-February, there are hopes direct flights to Red Sea resorts such as Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada would follow in April.
There will initially be six flights between the Russian capital and the Egyptian capital every week. These flights should bring in enough tourists to perk up the local tourism sectors. Many hotels and tourist facilities have rehired workers laid off in the last two years.
Russian state media sought to promote Egypt following the decision, with RIA Novosti publishing photos of the under-construction Grand Egyptian Museum, which aims to be partially open this year.
Hotels and tour companies in Egypt were preparing for the return of Russian tourists by upgrading facilities and designing special programmes.
“Almost all the workers are back to work now, preparing for the return of the Russian tourists,” said Hossam al-Shaer, a member of the Egyptian Federation of Chambers of Tourism and investor in several Red Sea hotels. “The good thing about Russian tourists is that they come here all year-round.”
The Egyptian Federation of Chambers of Tourism said it was expecting 3 million Russian tourists to visit Egypt by the end of 2018. Also, the resumption of flights from Russia to Egypt, the federation said, may encourage other countries to reconsider their flight suspensions to Egypt.
The prospect of the recovery of the tourism sector would reflect positively on the national economy, bring in much-needed foreign currencies and create jobs, economists said.
Egypt floated its currency almost a year ago to among other things prop up its foreign currency reserves, which were depleted by the loss of tourism revenues after 2015.
“This is why there are high hopes here that the return of activity to the tourism sector will change economic conditions to the better,” said Rashad Abdo, an economics professor at Cairo University. “More tourists will mean more cash for the economy, more jobs for youth and more demand for commodities in the market.”
Amr Emam is a Cairo-based journalist. He has contributed to the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and the UN news site IRIN.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.