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Long road ahead for Egypt tourism

By Marnie Hunter, CNN
  • Egypt reportedly had close to 15 million tourists last year
  • The country's political unrest comes during peak season for visitors
  • Political instability and visitor uncertainty are likely to hurt tourism badly in 2011

(CNN) -- Missing out on the chance to learn about Egypt's ancient wonders firsthand is disappointing, but Tanis Miller isn't taking any chances with her 14-year-old daughter's safety.

"Unfortunately, I really think that the tourist season for my family to Egypt is closed this year. There's just too much instability," said the 35-year-old mother from northern Alberta.

Miller and her daughter were among a handful of travelers scheduled to go on a school trip to Egypt in March. The political climate prompted the school board to nix the trip, and the group made a last-minute itinerary change. They'll be heading to Spain and Portugal instead.

It seems tourist season is closed for many of the millions who visit Egypt each year as tour companies, travelers and cruise lines cancel and divert their upcoming visits to avoid political unrest across the country. It might be a year or more before the industry recovers, experts say.

Last year, 14.7 million tourists visited Egypt, and tourism generated $11 billion in revenue, according to the Egyptian Tourist Authority in New York. Tourism in Egypt makes up about 11 percent of the gross domestic product, the tourism organization said.

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Most of the tourist bookings for February have been canceled, the tourist authority said.

And the phone has stopped ringing for future bookings, according to Brandon King, president of a small California-based company called Nile Valley Tours.

King's company has canceled a half-dozen February tours, and it looks like the same number will be called off in March. The political upheaval comes during peak tourist season in Egypt and a critical booking period for next fall and winter.

"Hopefully in a year or two, everything will be back to where we were," King said.

The uncertain state of the Egyptian government means things are unlikely to turn around anytime soon, and the situation will remain volatile even when the streets are clear of protesters and things begin to appear more normal.

"The problems that catalyzed the latest demonstrations, including high food prices and high unemployment, would remain, so Egypt would be perceived by outsiders, correctly, as a tinderbox," said Timur Kuran, a Duke University economics, political science and Islamic studies professor.

"And many people would decide to go elsewhere, would decide that this is not the right year to go to Egypt," Kuran said.

That lack of tourism is likely to aggravate the economic woes and frustrations of Egyptians who rely on tourism to make a living.

Guides with four- to six-year Egyptology degrees working with Nile Valley Tours typically make $20 to $25 per day, plus tips, King said.

"They basically live off of tips, and there's no tips, there's no work," he said.

Kuran said tourism in neighboring countries, including Jordan and Syria, also will be hit by the disruption in Egypt.

"They're all perceived now as trouble spots, as unstable, so to varying degrees they will all be affected," he said.

Many neighboring destinations are also frequently packaged on tours with Egypt. King said he wouldn't discourage clients from visiting Jordan right now, but at least 90 percent of the travelers who book Jordan trips with his company are going to Egypt as well.

King said he fears it will take awhile for public perception to catch up with reality when the political situation in Egypt does stabilize.

"Egypt, for a lot of Americans, is even in the best of times a scary Middle Eastern country, even though the reality is that on any given day the streets of Cairo are far safer than any Western city," he said.

The speed of the industry's recovery will depend in part on whether there's an effort to invite visitors back, he said. The Egyptian Tourist Authority said it would launch an extensive marketing effort when the crisis is over to recapture the country's share in the travel market.

Despite the impact on his business, King said he feels positive about what's happening in Egypt.

"The reality is that this is a good thing for the Egyptians, and if we have to fall on some hard times for six months or a year so that Egyptians can get a more hospitable government, then it will be worth it."

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