By Hannah Wilkinson
Egypt’s recent political upheaval, which saw images of violence and bloodshed broadcast worldwide, comes as less than welcome news to those whose livelihoods depend upon positive perceptions of the country.
The country’s tourist industry, which once provided more than $11bn in revenue and employed 12% of the country’s workforce, has experienced a noted decline since 2011, with tourist numbers decreasing to a fifth of the pre-revolution levels.
Earlier this month the Daily News Egypt reported fears of a further decline in numbers, as governments around the world advised their citizens against visiting most areas of the country, including Cairo, Alexandria and Luxor.
While the bustle of tourists in Dahab, a town on the South Sinai coast, suggest these latest troubles have not killed the Egyptian tourist industry, many fear for its future.
Since Dahab receives less global publicity than popular package holiday resorts such as Sharm El-Sheikh, it relies largely on repeat business. Loyal holidaymakers return to the town year after year, filling the hotels, restaurants and bars, and enjoying the diving and windsurfing for which Dahab is known.
One such holidaymaker has been visiting Dahab two or three times per year for the past eight years, unperturbed by even the 2011 revolution. “It is heavenly,” she said, “There is lovely coral here. It is beautiful, it is protected.” One family of four, from Alsace in France, has been coming to Dahab every summer since 2006 and staying in the same hotel. “It is the media that makes people afraid,” one family member said. “They make a big deal out of everything… but everyone here is always so nice.” Nonetheless, this time round the family were asked to sign a special disclaimer by their travel agency and took out special insurance on the trip. They were also advised against travelling to Dahab by their family and friends, whom they have to placate with daily texts and emails to assure them of their safety.
However, these repeat visitors are familiar with the town and unlikely to be put off by negative coverage of the country as a whole. “If people know Dahab it is no problem,” said Hatem, the part-owner of Seven Heaven, a popular, Lonely Planet endorsed hostel. “But if they do not know Egypt they think that all of Egypt is like Tahrir.”
Furthermore, the activities Dahab offers tend to attract the sort of adventurous young backpackers who scoff at negative media coverage and foreign office advice. “I take everything the British media says with a large pinch of salt,” young British holiday maker Harry said. He and his travel companion Alex, from Los Angeles, are in Dahab for the diving, taking a break from three years spent travelling around East Asia. “People see Egypt as a whole,” Alex said, “The media makes it seem like it is the entire country… but these things do not generally take place where tourists go,” referring to the demonstrations and unrest in Cairo. The pair intends to visit Cairo despite warnings to the contrary. “I have been to a lot of places around the world where things have gone on,” Harry explained, stating his intention to rely on the advice of local people rather than mainstream news sources.
First-time tourists are harder to find. One man from the Isle of Wight in Hampshire, UK, has come to Dahab for the first time with his wife and family. “I checked the Foreign Office website… and it seemed to say the tourist resorts were fine,” he said. On learning that he planned to come to Egypt “a couple of our friends raised a quizzical eyebrow,” he said, but did not advise against it.
There is nowhere near the sense of despair in Dahab which prevails in places such as Luxor and the Pyramids; Dahab is still classified as “safe to travel to” according to most countries. And many businesses put their continuing success in tough economic times down to cultivating a good reputation.
“The hotel is full, thank God,” Hatem of Seven Heaven said. “It is because we promise good customer service,” he explained. “We do not just think about money. And the prices of our rooms are always fixed, not more expensive in the high season.” Romario, a waiter at Yalla bar, agreed. He cultivates friendly banter with the customers, seeing this as crucial to securing repeat business. “I remember people’s faces,” he said. “You have to give people attention, but not bother them too much.” The bar also continues to serve alcohol throughout Ramadan while many other venues do not during this month.
The Sea Dancer Dive Centre has built such a reputation amongst their customers that they actually got busier during the recent protests. “We have an awful lot of repeat business,” said Steve, who has been working at the centre for nine years. “Our reputation is very, very good; we are on Trip Advisor and on that we have been number one for three and a half years.
“But we are not necessarily representative of all the dive centres in Dahab…The people that have got package tourists coming in…I think they’ll have a different story to tell.”
However, reputation cannot always counteract the fall in numbers after the January 25th Revolution. British couple Nada and Dave are choosing not to reinvest their money and move their well-known brasserie to a new location, instead they choose to move back to the UK. “It is up and down all the time,” Nada said. “They kept telling me it will be busy-busy but I have not seen it.” The couple’s decision to withdraw is based on doubts that business will get better. “You get a lot of repeat tourism in Dahab,” Dave said, “but new and upcoming tourism – I do not think it is going to happen.”
Down the main drag, towards the south of the town, the reassuring bustle dies away. There, the myriad bars, restaurants and cafes are almost totally empty. Touts half-heartedly attempt to persuade passersby to come in for a drink. Further south still, the empty shells of abandoned or unfinished hotels stand behind a deserted seafront dotted with retro street lamps which conjure up a post-apocalyptic seaside Narnia.
The last bastion before this wasteland, and the only cafe with any customers, is al Ghazala, a cafe and restaurant run by the affable Yessim. He insisted that business is good. “Some people prefer to stay in the quieter part of the town,” he said. One of his waiters sees things differently. “We are SO bored!” he exclaimed. “There has been no business for two years,” said another.
A former pool attendant, now guarding the totally abandoned hotel, insisted the place is still up and running. Indeed, the hotel has not fallen into disrepair. Its grounds are clean and tables and chairs are laid out neatly on the expanse of patio. The only thing missing is the people. “We have no guests at the moment,” he said, “all of the staff are on an unpaid holiday… God willing, things will pick up soon.”
At the other, equally dilapidated, extreme end of Dahab’s seafront, a business owner from Holland, whose hotel is something of a laid-back hipster hang out, puts his current lack of business down to the over-reaction of international governments to recent events in Egypt. “Unfortunately some countries decided to cancel all the flights therefore I was out of business…I only had some local people from Cairo and Alex who wanted to escape the violence there,” he said.
Although he is not in direct competition with the big chain resorts built slightly outside of the town, he still blamed them for some of the area’s problems. “The high season months have been horrible,” he explained. “These discounters which rent out ten days all-inclusive including flight… they stuff those people in the resorts and the resorts survive… but the local people…do not make a dime.” Large resorts, he complained, cause tourists to spend all week by the pool, never venturing out to support local restaurants and shops.
Nonetheless, the large resorts are not immune to the same problems suffered by smaller businesses. The Iberotel Dahabeya, a four star resort offering all-inclusive holidays, located to the south of the town, is running at 35% capacity as opposed to the 55% which is normal for this time of year. Their reservations manager is not worried by this, again relying on the hotel’s repeat guests to keep the business running. “We have had some cancellations,” he said, “but if people go on Trip Advisor and see the reviews they will know the hotel is good.”
However, nearby at the Swiss Inn Hotel, reservations manager Medhet Mohamed is not so optimistic. The hotel is currently at 20% capacity, as opposed to the 85% which is the norm for this time of year. The cause of this, he claimed, is that warnings were sent out to the travel agencies they worked with, mostly based in Germany and Russia, when Egypt’s most recent upheaval took place. This meant that the travel agencies were unable to make bookings, both for the hotel and for flights to Egypt, and the hotel as suffered as a result.
Mohamed is unclear as to who precisely sent these warnings, but the hotel has attempted to counter these negative perceptions by offering tour operators a 10% discount on the contract rate, and honeymoon packages and upgrades for the customers.