Dozens of people have been killed in the violence, but in the big picture the chaos in Egypt is still in early stages, and for now, tourism and the companies promoting it have to take a backseat to the more pressing problems of a country trying to define itself and its future.
When the UK Foreign Office urged travellers this week to avoid all but essential travel to most of Egypt – following weeks of violent protests that have since prompted a military coup – it was the latest in a series of body blows to the country’s tourism industry.
Even before that warning, which leaves only the Red Sea resorts open to Britons, Abta, the travel association, said bookings for Egypt were at a new low, with hot-air balloon crashes and kidnappings in the Sinai also causing concern.
Now all package holidays to destinations beyond the Red Sea have been suspended, while independent travellers will struggle to find insurance.
Was the advisory premature? It is more wide-reaching than the one issued in 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring, and though there has been some violence, I have spent the past couple of days moving happily through Cairo, including Tahrir Square, and received nothing but a warm welcome.
I was told it would be difficult to reach the aiport on Wednesday. I was picked up at 6.10am and got there in 30 minutes. It was sleepy, even with people leaving on pilgrimage to Mecca. You wouldn’t have guessed there had just been a regime change.
The events of the past week have been remarkably peaceful, given the strength of feeling among protesters.The fear now, following the removal of Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected leader, is that his supporters will vent their anger.
The people of Luxor feel keenly the impact of Morsi’s legacy. Two weeks ago they rose up against the imposition of a Morsi-appointed Islamist governor. He was a founder of Gamaa Islamiya, a group whose attacks included the massacre of tourists in Luxor in 1997. The group insists it has renounced violence. Even if that is true, the appointment was the act of a leader with little feeling for his people.
The Foreign Office issued no advisory about the unrest in Luxor at the time as none of it threatened tourists. Anyone there might have had difficulty reaching the Luxor Museum – a street had been blocked with burning tyres and barricades to stop the governor reaching his office.
If trouble continues, the consequences will be immense: one in eight Egyptians works in tourism. Tour operators hope stability will return by the end of August. Philip Breckner of Discover Egypt said that following the Foreign Office warning the company had to cancel a cruise on Wednesday. However, passengers who sailed on Monday were having such a good time that they had refused to come home early.
Justin Wateridge, managing director of Steppes Travel, said: “Trouble is localised. It is possible to fly into and out of Luxor and avoid the crowds of Cairo and have Egypt to yourself.”
Thomson said it was reviewing Egyptian itineraries daily. Cruises due to visit Alexandria and Port Said, for example, are now calling at Agios Nikolaos, Crete and Haifa, Israel. It said about 8,500 of its nearly 9,000 holidaymakers in Egypt were in Sharm el-Sheikh (pictured below), where it was “business as usual.”
Following the February 2011 downfall of President Mubarak, we were urged to visit Egypt – not just for its wonders but also to show solidarity with the people. When that call comes again I, for one, will be heeding it.
What to do if you’re due to travel
“As a result of the change in FCO advice the decision was made to cancel all outbound flights to Luxor on July 3. As a precautionary measure we took the decision to repatriate all customers currently holidaying in Luxor back to the UK on Wednesday. Customers due to travel imminently to Luxor should contact our dedicated customer service line from 7am on (08000 723829. Updated information can also be found at Thomson.co.uk and firstchoice.co.uk)”
“Discover Egypt has transferred holiday dates and/or refunded clients that were due to depart in this last week. Anyone travelling after July 8 should call (0844 880 0461) or visit discoveregypt.co.uk.”
“We’re re-arranging trips for the few who were due to travel in the next few weeks and waiting to see how the situation develops before making any decisions about the peak autumn months.” (01993 838 000; audleytravel.com)
“Customers with bookings for Sanctuary Egypt Cruises can move their booking free of charge to an alternative travel date (subject to availability) with no amendment fee, or alternatively can cancel their cruise free of charge. For more information email [email protected].”
“Bales Worldwide will continue to monitor the situation as it develops. Customers with any questions can contact us on (0844 488 1343).”
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Photo credit: In this Feb. 27, 2013 file photo, Foreign tourists visit Hatshepsut Temple, in Luxor, Egypt. Nasser Nasser / Associated Press