CAIRO, EGYPT One week after a hot air balloon accident killed more than a dozen tourists in Luxor, the country’s Minister of Tourism, Dr. Hisham Zazou, will leave Egypt as scheduled to attend ITB Berlin, one of the world's biggest tourism trade shows.
His mission takes on a greater sense of urgency after the 26 February balloon accident, one of a series of incidents that have attracted negative international attention to a country mired in civil turmoil. Tourism sector workers worry that such incidents will keep visitors away from the Land of the Pharaohs, causing further hardships amid a climate of inflation here.
Europe is the major tourism market for the North African country, whose economy is heavily reliant on visitors, said Rasha Azaizi, head of the media and press office for Egypt's Ministry of Tourism.
“Seventy-five percent of our source markets are based in Europe, with the main ones being German, Italian and British," she said.
According to the United Nations World Tourism Association, or UNWTO, tourism in Egypt brought in US$10.1 billion in 2012 as the country saw a 17% increase in visitors over 2011. This year initially looked bright for tourism, or so indicated a 26 February report released by the Ministry of Tourism. In January 2013, around 900,000 tourists visited Egypt, a 10.2% increase compared to the same month in 2012, the report said.
European guests accounted for roughly 70% of the visits, bringing in US $1 billion in revenue.
"Tourism alternates between the first and second income source for foreign currency,” Azaizi said, adding that the sector employs more than four million Egyptians.
Most visits pass without incident, although women travelers increasingly suffer incidents of sexual harassment.
But 19 people died 26 February after a gas canister ruptured causing a fire on board a balloon operated by Sky Cruises, according to various news reports. The company is one of eight balloon operators licensed by the Civil Aviation Authority according to its website.
The Authority imminently grounded all balloon flights to launch a full investigation. This is the second time all Egyptian balloon flights have been grounded for safety reasons; the first time was for six months in 2009, when an accident injured 16 tourists. After that accident, in which a hot air balloon hit a cellular phone transmission tower, a landing spot for balloons was designated. Pilots, who are required to have licenses, were also given more training.
The pilot of the 26 February flight, Momin Murad, did have a valid license. He survived the crash but suffered injuries.
Hend Abdelhamid, a travel consultant with the business travel company Carlson Wagonlit, said she doesn't think the accident will be a deterrent to tourists interested in Egypt.
"We've seen no cancellations. Actually, tourists know accidents happen," she said. "As long as the event or crisis is just once, people don't tend to cancel their trips."
Carlson Wagonlit, maintains more than 100 offices in Egypt, Abdelhamid said, including those at Vodafone, MobiNil, MasterCard, and the U.S. Embassy.
Another incident potentially deterring tourism transpired in the early hours of 29 January, when a group of armed thugs attacked and ransacked the Intercontinental Cairo Semiramis hotel, a 726-room property a block away from the U.S. and British embassies. The hotel is rated No. 12 out of 125 hotels in Cairo on the popular travel website TripAdvisor. The hotel reopened for guests on 21 February. Its well-known Birdcage Thai restaurant – rated No. 7 of more than 3,000 Cairo restaurants on TripAdvisor – re-opened 3 March.
Many Egyptian tourism sector employees – from tour guides to drivers or hotel staff – have had to look for other work over the past two years. Others have become increasingly creative in their marketing process to stay in business.
Ahmed Seddik, who has led tours around Egypt for 15 years, offers a tour based on the 2011 Revolution that saw the overthrow of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Called Behind the Sun: Cairo Tour of Revolution and Graffiti, the group tour has been featured on CNN. It takes guests past buildings closely associated with Mubarak’s regime, as well as Tahrir Square.
“You have had writing on the wall throughout Egyptian history, actually, it was not born yesterday,” Seddik said. “It was born 5,000 years ago. But in spite of the graffiti Mubarak was not able to read the writing on the wall.”
Seddik said he hopes to see more systematic care of tourism infrastructure like roads and railways. Deadly car, bus and rail accidents happen frequently throughout Egypt.
"Safety and security are the bedrock for any successful tourism," Seddik said. "The rest are just the ice of the cake."
Kathlyn Clore is a freelance writer based in Cairo, Egypt