Touts Bigger Threat than Bombs to Egypt Tourism: Minister

CAIRO ~ Pushy bazaar merchants and poor waiter service are a bigger threat to Egypt’s tourism industry than the bombs of Islamic militants, Tourism Minister Zoheir Garranah has said.

Garranah said new figures showed that tourist arrivals held up in 2006 despite a devastating April suicide bombing in the Red Sea resort of Dahab that killed 20 people including several foreign holidaymakers.

A record 9.81 million tourists added US$7.6 billion to Egypt’s economy last year, the minister said.

But he said Egypt could not afford to rest on its laurels as the figures fell below target, largely because of what he described as poor human resources.

Many tourists complained of being harassed by touts and leave the country with a bitter taste vowing never to return, he said, adding that this was causing greater harm to the industry than the spate of bombings that have rocked Sinai resorts since 2004.

“Terrorism is a problem everywhere. I don’t think the world has experienced so many troubles worldwide as in 2006,” the minister said.

According to Garranah, the industry quickly bounced back after the April attack and the industry last year sold a record 89 million room nights, with each tourist staying an average 9.83 nights and spending an average 85 dollars per night.

The real challenge was to ensure Egypt’s tourism workers met world-class standards, said Garranah, who joined the cabinet of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif in late 2005.

“I’m very much concerned about upgrading the skills of the people working in the industry and in the training itself,” he said. “If I won’t be doing much else this year, it’s because I will be concentrating on that.”

Last April, the ministry launched a massive campaign known as the Tourism Awareness Project, which targets ordinary Egyptians and tries to drive home the message that the sector, which accounts for more than a fifth of the country’s hard currency earnings, affects everyone.

For every one million tourist arrivals, 200,000 additional jobs are generated directly or indirectly, Garranah said.

“I want to concentrate on the general awareness of tourism for everybody, not only the hotel owners and shops and bus companies and Nile cruises. When it works, it trickles down to every single person in the country.”

While the Great Pyramids of Giza, the treasure trove of Ancient Egyptian antiquities and the long stretches of beaches on the Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts guarantee a certain quota of visitors every year, many never return due to the poor nature of the service industry.

Foreign tourists regularly complain of bazaar salesmen trying to push “authentic” Pharaonic perfumes, of slow and unresponsive waiters in restaurants and of over-eager camel guides harassing them into over-priced rides around the pyramids.

“People took it for granted that everybody would come to Egypt (and) it’s true,” Garranah said.

“But the people are treating tourists badly; they are harassing them and are not providing proper services.”

Egypt has set itself a target of 14 million tourists a year by 2011 and plans to expand hotel capacity to 240,000 rooms from 175,000 at present.

In 2006, the largest number of tourists – more one million – came from Britain, followed by tourists from Russia.

Europeans make up 67 percent of total visitors while Arabs, particularly from Gulf countries, make up 21 percent.

Garranah said Egypt was making a concerted drive to attract tourists from India and China, who according to the World Tourism Organisation between them will have 150 million travelers by 2020.

The ministry has already allocated money to promote Egypt in those two countries, while an increasing number of hotel staff are being trained to speak Mandarin.

“They (tourists from China and India) are the hotcake. We will have to have a piece of this cake,” Garranah said.

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