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Egypt: Tour operators reflect on ‘a remarkable episode’

When the eyes of the world were transfixed on Egypt’s political revolution in late January and early February, many members of the travel industry paid especially close attention — Egypt is one of the leading tourist destinations in the region, and the country’s political climate has major ramifications for its sizable tourism trade.

As Cairo’s mass protests began pushing the Mubarak regime to the brink of collapse, a large exodus of foreigners caused many tour operators to quickly pull their travelers out of the country. After the mostly peaceful resolution, tourism professionals are hopeful that foreign visitors will return quickly, too.

“We’re calling it the ‘Big Out’ and the ‘Big In,’” said Robert Drumm, president of General Tours. “Everybody left; but now, everyone is either gingerly or enthusiastically re-entering in the space of six weeks. It’s quite a remarkable episode.”

The quick withdrawal of tourists from Egypt speaks to the well-laid contingency plans of tour operators on the ground; the rate at which visitors return, however, will depend on the success of the country’s political transition, the marketing strength of the travel industry and the resilience of public demand for Egypt’s unique tourism offerings.

A quick exit
As Egypt’s protests turned into a revolution — and observers were unsure how peacefully events would unfold — tour operators were quick to remove their travelers from harm’s way. Because of quick action and planning, they were able to avoid the chartered government flights and crowded airport scenes shown in the press.

“We pulled them out of their hotels in downtown Cairo and positioned them at the Fairmont on Jan. 27,” Drumm said. “We did that because the hotel was close to the airport, and our Cairo manager was very close by. We were able to get our folks rebooked and out on commercial flights. By Jan. 30, all of our people were out of Egypt.”

Isramworld, an Israel-based tour operator that has offered trips to Egypt since the Camp David Peace Accords of 1979, took advantage of its network in the region to help clear passengers once the protests began.

“We managed to get all of the passengers out, some through Cyprus and some through Turkey,” said owner and CEO Ady Gelber. “We have our own Isramworld office and team in Cairo who were giving us minute-by-minute updates on how the situation was affecting tourism in general and Isramworld clients in particular.”

Isramworld, General Tours and other tour operators canceled their February and March departures to Egypt, refunding passenger deposits or offering them trips to other destinations in the region. The cessation of tour operations in Egypt coincided with a U.S. State Department travel warning advising Americans to avoid travel to the country.

Encouraging re-entry
With the fall of President Hosni Mubarak and a new political system beginning to develop, many tourism organizations are eager to see visitors return to Egypt. Tourism is a sizable part of the country’s economy, and hospitality professionals there say that the country is ready to welcome the world again.

“The tourism industry there is ready, and they’re anxious,” said Lisa Simon, president of NTA, an association whose membership includes the Egyptian Tourist Authority and several travel companies in Egypt. “Everything is open now. All the attractions and museums are open, and the tourism police are back in place at attractions and hotels to make sure visitors feel safe.”

Many European countries have lifted their Egypt travel warnings, and Simon is hopeful that the American government will soon follow suit, helping to allay the public’s apprehensions about traveling to the country.

NTA, along with the United States Tour Operators Association and other professional groups, is planning an official visit to Egypt and Jordan later this spring.

“Our whole point is to demonstrate that it’s safe and secure,” Simon said. “[Tourism] is such a vital aspect of their economy, and so we felt like it’s important that we help tourism return as soon as it’s safe and stable. We will be meeting with government and industry leaders.”

In similar spirit, General Tours’ Drumm made a trip to Cairo in early March and decided that conditions on the ground warranted the return of his company to the country on March 24.

“We’re going back in with our comprehensive trip,” he said. “We’re able to upgrade our primary hotel because of the lower pricing, and we can offer a savings of $900 from what the price was before. So there’s a real value story with this extraordinary time.”

Drumm expects to see about 30 percent of the company’s typical volume throughout the spring while the discounts remain in effect. For the fall, prices will return to normal, and the company is anticipating visitors to begin going back to Egypt.

Isramworld is seeing similar levels of interest.

“I have two groups — one in April and one in May — that have not canceled,” Gelber said. “We have some individuals who are booking now for June and July. I believe the recovery will start sometime in September.”

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.