Egypt desperate to revive coronavirus-hit tourism industry

A camel guide stands in front of the Great Pyramid at Giza, Egypt (1 July 2020) Image copyright AFP
Image caption Tourism is said to account for more than 12% of Egypt’s GDP

A wonder of the world, the pyramids at Giza have wowed visitors for millennia. But they were deserted as the coronavirus pandemic laid waste to Egypt’s tourism industry and millions of people’s livelihoods.

Although this ancient site reopened on 1 July – with new compulsory temperature checks and social distancing at the entrance – only a few locals come by.

A pigeon perched on the face of the regal, reclining Sphinx, is its solitary guest.

“It’s been so hard for everyone. We’ve spent four months at home,” says Ashraf Nasr, who has been offering camel rides to sightseers for 25 years. “Each camel needs 100 Egyptian pounds ($6; £5) a day for food.”

He was forced to sell two of his animals so that he could feed his family, as was another owner, Hamdi Mohammed.

“How could I afford to look after the camels and my children?” Mr Mohammed asks. “I need to pay out for nursery fees and nappies.”

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Tourists have not returned in large numbers to the Giza pyramids site since it reopened

Prospects looked starkly different before the pandemic. After years of political turmoil and a deadly bomb attack on a passenger plane in 2015, tourism was booming.

In 2019, 13.6 million people visited Egypt and numbers this year were expected to exceed 15 million.

“Finally, everything was so stable. I was busy the whole week. But after the coronavirus, everything just disappeared,” says tour guide Shahenda Adel, who lives in Giza.

She lost 1,000 holiday bookings after international flights were stopped in mid-March and says that affected many besides her.

“We had to cancel hotels – and that involves everyone who works in the hotel, the travel company itself, all the people behind desks. We all lost our jobs. And then you have drivers and restaurants,” she says.

Image caption Shahenda Adel, a tour guide, lost 1,000 bookings after travel restrictions were imposed

Tourism and Antiquities Minister Khaled el-Anany is on a mission to bring back business and help revive the economy.

“It was a disaster for us, like the whole world,” he says. “We lost around $1bn per month and we’re estimating that we’ll still lose a lot of money during the coming weeks and months.”

Tourism accounts for more than 12% of Egypt’s gross domestic product (GDP), according to the minister.

In recent days, Mr Anany has made media appearances showcasing new hygiene and safety rules as museums reopened and some foreign flights resumed to the provinces of South Sinai, Red Sea and Matrouh.

He says there are virtually no cases of Covid-19 in these coastal areas, making them safest.

“For the time being, you will see the beaches, the sun, the desert, water activities – it’s the open air and the sea.

“Later on, we’ll open the Nile Valley, with Alexandria, Cairo, Luxor and Aswan.”

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The UK continues to advise British nationals against non-essential travel to Egypt

Many in the industry expect to see changes as mass tourism returns but say these can be positive, with new steps to improve sanitisation and reduce overcrowding at popular sites.

“People around the world are now trying to avoid big crowds as much as possible, so I guess there will be more very small groups, if not individual tourists,” says Mona el-Dessouki, another tour guide.

She sees face masks as her biggest challenge.

“Our job depends mainly on eye contact and the smile we welcome our guests with, but now the mask will be hiding half of our faces,” she says.

“Also wearing the mask for many hours while on a tour in buses, closed areas like museums, airports and aircraft is not going to be as easy as it may sound.”

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Egyptian Museum in Cairo currently holds the treasures of King Tutankhamun

Back in Giza, there have been huge clean-up operations around the pyramids, like other ancient monuments.

While the pandemic delayed the opening of the new Grand Museum here – which will house many treasures, including those of King Tutankhamun – it is hoped that when this opens next year it will be a big draw.

The country knows it can count on the enduring allure of its rich, pharaonic past.

“Egypt is different, a mix of wonders,” says Ms Adel, the guide. “After all, who doesn’t want to come and see the pyramids? It’s on everybody’s bucket list.”